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Vietnam Honeymoon

By: Johanne Auerbock, Burlingame, USA
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

Vietnam wasn' t the most conventional honeymoon ever, but we' d just thrown the party of our lives, complete with a hundred of our closest friends and family, photographers recording our every move, and a dress almost worthy of a Hollywood runway.  Splendid, of course, but also dissonant, and it felt good to arrive at a more basic sort of escape from normal life - backpacker hotels, crowded buses, dodgy street food, and the other novel discomforts of third-world travel. 

The wedding had taken planning precedence, and we arrived without so much as a hotel reservation for our first night, and only a vague idea of our itinerary, cobbled together from a library guide book on the long plane ride over.  Having grown up abroad and indifferent to the study of history, I also had an embarrassingly skeletal knowledge of Vietnam' s war-torn past, including the American war. There were reminders, though, and knowledge to be picked up along the way.  My Son temple, an impressive ruin near the central beach resort of Hoi An was on the itinerary.  I spent most of my allotted time there on my stomach in the musty floor of one of the holy temples, trying to photograph the cave crickets that hopped along the cobblestones, with the sounds of other tourists muffled by the solid stone around me.  It was time enough for my eyes to get accustomed to the light, and when I looked up from my viewfinder, I was awestruck by the light glinting off cobblestones and the giant alter in the center of the room.  Almost sixty buildings survived thousands of years, and then all but 20 of the smallest were destroyed in bombing, in attempts to clear the Viet Cong weapons stores held within.  Standing at the base of a yawning crater, my new husband and I tried to imagine the force that could have moved so much earth in such a short time; the first time in our sheltered lives that we had come face to face with such tangible evidence of the weapons of war.  My country was responsible, and I am so, so sorry. 

A more human moment came some days later, as we sat on a beach frequented by locals.  We had a Coke and some grilled fish, and watched the sun sink below the waves, and the lanterns come out on the vendor' s mats dotted up and down the beach, illuminating the faces of the Vietnamese families gathered around.  We spoke about how wonderful this was - all these people come to spend the evening meal together at the beach; the strong, close family ties. 

Suddenly a man stood at the edge of our mat with his small son in his arms.  “Hello, he said to his son, trying to encourage him to repeat the word.  We waved at the beautiful child, said hello, waved again, in that head cocked, exaggerated manner that people sometimes adopt when waving at small children.  The son was riveted, silent, the man in no hurry.  The rest of his family gathered, a total of seven children ranging in age from a baby on his wife' s arm, to a girl maybe 15 years old.  We were, by now, used to being in the center of a crush of humanity on a mission, but this was different.  The man simply wanted to show us his family.  He pointed to each in turn, made a gesture that encompassed all of them and himself.  All of these children belonged to him, he was saying, all of these beautiful children.  And then, he made us understand a single word: war.  Finally, he reached for my husband' s hand and brought it to his own ankle where it was bare below his trouser cuff - a strong, tanned hand which easily fit around the wasted limb, and again, that feeling of helplessness.  I am so, so sorry.  And yet the words and gestures escaped us, and we sat there dumbly for a few minutes. 

The man melted back into the crowded darkness to his mat.  And my husband, my own embryonic family, appeared new to me in the eyes of that Vietnamese soldier.  Young, slightly sunburned, with a short haircut suited to the tropical weather, the flickering candlelight highlighted his strong jawline, his familiar nose.  So gentle, so heart-achingly beautiful- and so like the thousands of Americans who frequented this beach 40 years ago, pretending normalcy in a world of hurt.  I don' t know anything about that Vietnamese man, or his history.  I' ve read more now, and with my new knowledge I wonder whether he was a Viet Cong, a Southerner, or a peasant caught in the crossfire between the two.  I don' t know what he came to our mat to achieve, or whether he found what he was looking for.  I do know that I found something in this moment, and in the regrets that it left behind - a sudden aching realization of how fragile, how wonderful, how precious our innocence is, and yet how easily oblivious innocence can become its own sort of brutality.

 

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