Originally written and submitted for publication in NAFSA’s story competition on why one is in the field of international education (December, 2011).
“Back when I was in ‘Nam” is a phrase my father never said, still doesn’t say. He never spoke of it while I was growing up. I’m surprised my father isn’t a bit “off” as some of his friends are. High school buddies died there, back in 1967. His mother—my grandmother—would send letters to Blackhorse Base Camp outside Saigon, informing him that so and so came back to Hudsonville, Michigan that week in a body bag.
My father’s entrance to the war was similar to most other’s at the time. He sold his ’67 Corvette, drained his bank account, and never expected to come home alive. He didn’t want to come home. Resigned that this was the end, he spent every dime he had. He did return home, however, after a year in Xuan Loc, Vietnam. And not in a body bag.
He had to be slightly “off,” I thought, when he asked me to join him on a trip to Vietnam in 2011. There had to be a few screws loose in his mind to return to a country he rarely spoke of, one that once wanted him dead. Whereas his friends wanted to return for “healing” measures—to build churches and care for children born with Agent Orange defects—my father wanted to explore and enjoy a people he’s come to appreciate.
And to party. I was honored he invited me along for the ride.
Early February is Tet Holiday. It’s Vietnam’s Christmas and New Year’s combined, and perfect for my dad. He wanted to see a people celebrating. It’s a weeklong extravaganza full of lights, fireworks, bonsai trees, and Buddha. And lucky money, those palm-size red envelopes with money adults give kids.
“Chuc mung na moi,” a Vietnamese woman said to me my first night in Saigon. She was someone my dad befriended; he has a way of connecting with others quickly. She handed me one of the famous red envelopes. “Happy New Year,” she said. Inside the envelope was 10,000 dong, about fifteen cents in US currency. It was lucky money, the thought being if you give a little to someone, happiness and good luck is on your side start of the New Year.
I saw this one afternoon in another fashion. A Vietnamese family pooled their resources and paid a musical troupe to visit a neighbor’s home. Dressed in dragon masks, beating drums and dancing about, these hired “good luck wishers” scared out any lingering bad karma. Out with the old, in with the new. A few minutes later the dancing dragons piled into their flatbed truck and were on to the next house. A family paid for this, to bring good luck to someone and, because they were thoughtful, they receive good luck as well.
A gesture of dancing dragons has the same effect as lucky money: give a little and good karma is on your side for the year. This is the Vietnamese’s way of wishing a prosperous New Year and getting something in return. An Asian win-win.
So it was nice when the dragon dancers asked my dad and me to whoop it up with them at the next house. And that’s what this trip was about: celebrating a country’s holiday with a desire to explore and connect with its people.
My father left the States two weeks before me. Landing in northern Vietnam in February he saw sea stacks a mile out in the ocean. These tall, bulging rock formations sitting in fog-layered Halong Bay greeted my dad every morning. “Peace and oneness,” my father described the scene, while sipping dark, slow-drip Vietnamese coffee. Rice paddies spotted with pointy bamboo hats gave way to thick jungle on his trek south to Saigon. He rode on the backs of motorcycles, wrapping his arms around guys who likely shot at him on that road years ago.
The war was brought up often during my two-week visit, but by my dad, not by any Vietnamese. Vietnamese never broached the topic. When prodded by my father they said they are a Buddhist people. “What’s done is done. We forgive,” Nguyen, told us over dinner. He is the brother-in-law of a Vietnamese man I befriended in Rhode Island. “We’ve moved on,” he said. Nguyen’s English was good, he spending many years reading British grammar books.
Before I left the States my Rhode Island friend gave me personal letters and American newspapers to hand off to his family. The Communist government bans the newspapers. They must be scared of capitalist sales on Victoria Secret bras, I imagine.
When I handed Nguyen the gifts, Nguyen’s small, slanted, squinting eyes bulged with excitement for the latest news.
That and having contraband at home. If a Vietnamese government official or spying neighbor got wind of such material floating around, Nguyen and his family would be brought to the police, detailed, and strongly questioned, if not imprisoned.
This happened—happens—frequently in Vietnam. A Vietnamese author campaigning for democracy and human rights in Vietnam was jailed in 2010 for one year. An Australian author was invited by Vietnamese professors to lecture on human rights recently. He never left the airport terminal in Hanoi; the government deported him within minutes. You can imagine the need, then, to look over your shoulder and choose friends wisely in Vietnam.
So it was with great consideration but also pride in his beliefs that my friend’s sister knelt down to a small Buddha shrine adorning her family room and picked up specialty tea and handed it to me.
“Ear. Geef. My brooder, an on fa yu,” Nguyen’s wife, Mayling, said to me in broken English and Vietnamese accent. “Frum all oos,” she said, pointing to her family—the brother-in-law, two nieces, and my Rhode Island friend’s eighty-one year-old mother. Mayling handed me an opulent box of Vietnamese tea.
“Chuc mung na moi,” she said, a soft glow in her eyes knowing I’d see her brother in the States and pass on the message of love and care.
A few days in Saigon were enough for me. The hustling from street vendors and zoom of motorbikes add up quickly. I needed to get out and breathe fresh air. A three-hour drive east of Saigon to the South China Sea was easy to do, and a welcoming respite for my dad and me.
I travel a lot. At age ten I went to Mexico with my family. I then hiked part of the Grand Canyon, and later scoured an island national park in Michigan for moose bones. As a freshman in college I called holes in the ground my toilet in the Yucatan Peninsula. At twenty I ran with Spanish bulls in Pamplona. The following year I worked for politicians in D.C., that by far the most challenging and dirtiest of environments. I lived in Buenos Aires and then Prague, on weekends stepping over cow feet festooned with flies in an Albania market. These trips, some lasting five months or more, were made memorable because I sought local, human connections while abroad. You’d be surprised how buying a drink for someone forms an immediate bond.
Outside of Saigon and in the quieter town of Mui Ne I did just that. For a week I befriended a Vietnamese and connected with locals. Dang worked across the street from our motel at a restaurant/café. I imagine Dang was about seventeen. He likely had never left Mui Ne, not even to drive three hours to Saigon for the weekend. And I’m certain I was the first American who had ever ventured past a drink order or finger snapping to the level of being his friend. I spend afternoons at the café learning Vietnamese, and taught Dang and his teenage coworkers key English words; the essentials, like “beer” and “music” and phrases like, “What’s your number?”
Dang introduced me to his female coworkers, too. The girls served me drinks and pointed, saying, “dap trai” many times. I first thought they were saying, “Don’t try,” as in, “Tony, your Vietnamese pronunciation is so bad, just don’t try.” I found out “dap trai” means “hot boy.”
If Saigon is New York, Mui Ne is Topeka, Kansas. And I loved it.
Unlike Topeka, however, Mui Ne and its neighboring town Than Thiet produce Vietnam’s supply of fish oil. The oil is used in most dishes, its production making towns smell like rotting fish rubbed in burning tires. It was disgusting. But after the first day one gets used to it. You have to.
Fishy stench notwithstanding, I understood how locals in Mui Ne could live there. The South China Sea and all its splendid views make the town comfortable and home.
The inhabitants of Mui Ne, though poorer than cosmopolitan Saigon, also use motorbikes. Lots of them. But older, more beat up ones. Dang’s bike was constantly in need of repair. He knew no English, I knew no garage vocabulary in any language. But Dang and I got along. He gave me his helmet and wrapped my arms around his waist tightly. We whipped through side streets, dodging chickens, old and weary women in nightgowns crossing the road, and squatting naked babies.
One afternoon he and his friends motor-biked my father and me to red sand dunes a few miles from the town’s center. It was odd going from a small, crowded village to an oasis of dark red sand. It covered miles of nothingness, its blanket of peach and maroon hues stretching over ground for miles into the dropping sun.
A little boy eager to show off his entrepreneurial spirit motioned us to follow up the sand dunes. I didn’t understand what he wanted until a green, plastic sled was unrolled. The kid gestured for me get on. I did. He disappeared.
Suddenly a torpedoing body came charging and with a strong push to my spine I was gliding down red sand in Asia. So much sand in my mouth and hair, and I didn’t care. I knew I’d remember this forever. I knew Dang and his friends would remember sledding alongside me under the sun pounding its dry heat on my pale head and neck.
My dad did not create our Vietnam trip to open wounds from decades past. Nor did he seek amends with strangers. He put together an exploration of excitement, a voyage with room for possibilities.
His sense of adventure I have, too. I take the adventure to the human level of connection. I stumble to a café and make Vietnamese friends. It becomes routine, if only for a few days. I cross the dirt street from our motel to where Dang and the others work. We play billiards and hike ocean cliffs, the girls asking me to carry them over rocks—something I could do thanks to their miniature physique. We connect, memories are made.
That’s why I relish the unknown, the exploration of travel: to arrive expecting soup, rice paddies, and motorbikes; to depart with unplanned yet completely authentic memories.
Back when I was in ‘Nam I partied with my sixty-three year-old father, rubbed Buddha’s belly, explored side streets, and let local encounters transpire into lasting friendships.
Tony Amante Schepers