So much for weekly posting. First semester finals and a family vacation put the kibosh on blogging. That’s how it goes when you’re a mom. Finals come to town and we don sheriff badges, tutor hats, snack provider uniforms and crisis counselor faces. The day after finals we all deserve a break. Our family settled on board a Korean Air Airbus for a long-awaited trek to Southeast Asia. Maintenance issues added a few more hours to the wait, causing us to miss our connection. That’s travel. It didn’t ruin our trip. Actually, the unplanned overnight stay at the Airport Hyatt Seoul gave me an excuse to place an extra thumbtack on my World map.
After another flight we landed at our destination: Hanoi, Vietnam. It was surreal; cows plowing fields near the airport not far from where large corporations have erected sprawling, modern factories. The fanciful French architecture, beside skinny, tall Vietnamese homes, wedged beside Soviet-era no-nonsense homes gave us a quick history lesson about the various influences swirling around Hanoi. When we passed by Truc Bach Lake I asked about an unusual sculpture. Turned out to be a monument to John McCain’s capture. In 1967 he’d parachuted into the lake after the North Viets shot down his plane. Like I said, surreal.
I grew up during the Vietnam War and was not sure what to expect from the Vietnamese. What I learned is that they are gracious, lovely people. And they are tired of fighting. Vietnamese have a saying: “You can live without a father, but you can’t live without a mother.” To them, Mom’s are #1. Our local guide, Tam, credits his mom and dad with making sacrifices so he could attend college. After the Vietnam War, the North Viets sent Tam’s father to a re-education camp and when he returned, the government prevented him from running his business. Soon, his dad’s health began to fail. Tam’s mom sold the small piece of land they owned so she could send Tam to school.
I expected to see men like Tam’s father who had fought in the war. Unfortunately, the healthcare system is not great and life expectancy in Vietnam is about 65, tops. I didn’t meet any of their vets, though I saw a few of them with missing limbs on the streets of Saigon and it was a sad sight. We also crawled through part of the Cu Chi Tunnels and this too, made me sad reminding me of the senseless loss of life. The VC lived underground for as long as a month at a time. They had medical facilities and sleeping quarters, as deep as three stories beneath the ground. They also had booby traps and rifle peep-holes affording them deadly aim at American soldiers. Over 58,000 American soldiers died during the course of the war. Millions of Vietnamese died.
But we’re talking more than forty years ago. God Bless Bill Clinton for having the insight in 1996 to lift sanctions and improve lives in Vietnam. They’re doing business with Americans, Japanese and others. Every city is bustling with motorbikes and mopeds, everyone moving, honking and in a hurry to get someplace else. There’s a paved road system and we rode our bikes over miles and miles of it, some smooth, a lot of it bum-achingly bumpy.
Vietnam remains a one party country, but this is not Communism like you imagine it despite red and yellow star flags waving in front of Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. “Today we look forward. We have compulsory education up until the sixth grade,” said Tam. Tam admits most cannot afford to go to high school and college.
As we biked through the backroads of Hue, Hoi An and Saigon, hordes of children looked up from playing and ran out to greet us. Waving and shouting “Hello!” and “What’s your name?” I smiled, high-fived but was secretly disappointed they weren’t in school.
On the plane ride home, I realized my High School kid had a few revelations of us own when he said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually looking forward to going back to school.”
As always, it’s the people of a place that leave a lasting impression. To those Vietnamese who waved hello, offered help and sold us trinkets and food, I say thank you – Cảm ơn.