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.