Sunday, May 29, 2011

Traveling to Vietnam and Cambodia from Barbara Roth

My husband and I recently traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia. (Yes Karen, it was a group tour.) Growing up as part of the 60’s generation, I went with a definite feeling of ambivalence knowing that 60,000 Americans had died there.

As a fairly uninvolved college student I remember going to some antiwar protests and even hearing Jane Fonda speak at a rally one afternoon.

The war for me began to hit home in 1969 while watching the involuntary draft on TV along with others and being quietly glued to the screen while numbers were slowly drawn. My boyfriend at the time had an ominously low number & vowed to do whatever it would take to not have to go. My husband who I did not know then was also called up for the draft and he too used every trick known not to serve.

Yet here we were 40 years later as tourists in Southeast Asia. Who would have ever imagined such a scenario?

Prior to leaving, I partially read Stanley Karnow’s, Vietnam : A History. The book was way too long with too much information for my 62 year old brain. I put it down but my husband managed to fill me in throughout the trip about the lies and deceptions of our government.

I read instead The Lotus Eaters a fictional romance between an American photojournalist and her Vietnamese assistant during the war years. Being there, the setting and places took on a vicarious reality for me such as sitting at sunset with a drink on the rooftop terrace of the Rex Hotel where once war correspondents and officers hung out or traveling down the Mekong Delta by boat in the steamy heat.

These romantic notions quickly gave way to the harsher reminders we saw of the war and its aftermath. We stopped at the Cu Chi tunnels the North Vietnamese had dug in the South some of it right under the noses of an American army base. In our posh hotel we saw tours advertised to the My Lai massacre site. We also visited the sacred grounds of a Killing Field in Cambodia. There was certainly a disconnect from the incredibly fertile green land we observed to the Agent Orange spraying and bombings which played out many years ago on the nightly news.

Throughout our travels and all around us we saw temples and Buddha shrines and the faces of the people who either survived the war or were too young to remember. Our tour guides had all been born near the end or after the war, but they knew the stories.

In Cambodia our guide knew from his family, many of whom had been killed, that you could not wear glasses, carry a book or even have smooth hands for under Pol Pot any sign of knowledge was a death sentence.

Our guide in North Vietnam was born in 1975 and his parents were communists. At the Hanoi Hilton prison site he told us how well American prisoners were treated which we all knew to be a lie but it was his reality - a reminder that propaganda is never one sided.

Often throughout our trip my husband and I wondered how could they not hate us? Was it their Buddhist religion or a communist sense that one must sacrifice individual feelings for the good of all. Our guides always seemed to infer that the past is over and that the people look towards a future prosperity. But perhaps forgiveness lies with the young who have no wartime memories and these are both very youthful countries as postwar countries always seem to be.


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