Sunday, October 29, 2017

GOODBYE VIETNAM

Children play in a Vietnamese park. They are growing up in a country at peace.
I’m back in Saigon, and I can’t believe my journey is finished.

My three country odyssey through the former war zones of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia is finally over.

Back in my old District 1 haunts, I’m spending one of my final nights in Southeast Asia in my favorite hangout: Godmother's Bar. I had made friends here, while enjoying food, drink and Vietnamese hospitality. Sadly, it’s the end of the road for Godmother’s Bar too.

While the pub is popular, the building’s owners have decided to turn the bar into a tiny tourist hotel, like dozens of others crowded into the Pham Ngu Lao neighborhood. So the Godmother, the Vietnamese staff and my foreign friends are having a bittersweet celebration for closing night.

“It’s the end of an era,” says my teacher friend Jeff. Indeed.

As my favorite night spot closes, I reflect on the close of my long journey, and search for knowledge about life in post-war Southeast Asia. I wasn’t disappointed.

I traveled far and wide on jets, planes, motorboats, rowboats, ferries, buses, motorbikes, cyclos, tut-tuks, and even traveled across a river on the back of an elephant! 

I traveled to distant, remote former battlefields from the Vietnam War years, places that today's young people never heard of, and that old veterans will never forget.

I met veterans from so many armies: Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese,  Pathet Lao, Khmer Rouge, and of course, American veterans of the war who had returned to Vietnam.

An elephant walks on a path in the Hue imperial palace complex.
One of them had become a buddy of mine. And now he’s gone too.

While I was away in Cambodia only weeks before, my friend Kenny Harris, a former US Marine Corps veteran, had died at sea.

Kenny had been away leading one of his scuba diving tours of Southeast Asia. One night their charter boat was anchored off the coast of Malaysia, when out of nowhere, their boat was rammed by a freighter. The tourists and crew were up on deck, and they all managed to swim to safety. Kenny was below deck sleeping. He didn’t have a chance.

I didn’t learn of this tragedy until I got back to Saigon. While I was away, they held a memorial night at Godmother’s Bar, dedicated to Kenny. They sat by a framed picture of the tall former Marine. Kenny had a lot of friends and they were there; with toasts all around from both foreigners and Vietnamese. Kenny would have approved. 

Rest In Peace Kenny. 

Now Kenny's gone, Godmother’s is closing, my journey is finished, and my story is ends. It's time to turn the page.

That’s how it has been here in Vietnam not just for my journey but in the decades since the war; life has moved on. There's been tragedy here, but no longer. The Vietnamese picked themselves up, rebuilt their country, and moved on.

The people I met here, young and old, generally had been hospitable, helpful, and patient. As I'm American, I was expecting to encounter anger and hostility in my forays through these former war zones. I never encountered that once, as far as I could see. It’s a fact that many Americans are far more bitter about the Vietnam War today, then the Vietnamese are. For them, the war is past, and they look to the future.

“The war was a long time ago,” I once heard from Ho, an ex-Viet Cong fighter. “No hate. No hate.” Those were wise words.

Both Ho, and the current Vietnamese government want to put the war behind them. They are welcoming Americans again, and they want to make friends.

We should do the same. 

Goodbye Vietnam.

I'll never forget you. 

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