Later, the crew members of our junk break out the karaoke machine in the dining cabin. They warble to syrupy Vietnamese pop tunes while we passengers clap along. One of us, a Spanish woman, selects a Gloria Gaynor girl-power anthem.
“Come, girls!” she commands.
The girls include an Irish schoolteacher, me and a shy Vietnamese vacationer from Da Nang, whom I pull, protesting, to her feet. But even she can’t resist belting out the disco chorus with us: “And I’ll survive! I will survive! Hey, hey!”
The next morning, as our junk motors out of the cove, I sit at the railing near the only other American on board. Scott’s a Midwestern paramedic, middle-age like me. We enthuse to one another about how deluxe the accommodations are in Vietnam, and how cheap.
“The reason why I chose to come to Vietnam,” Scott says, “was because of the exchange rate. I’ve spent $750 in 10 days, staying in nice hotels.”
“Yeah, and this boat trip,” I say. Two days, a plush little stateroom for two with its own bathroom, all meals, a guide — 100 bucks per person.
Scott and I go on for a while about the friendliness of the Vietnamese people, the general sense that their country is going places. Vietnam has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
I was born in 1962. I grew up with the Vietnam War. Back then, the northern half of the country was the enemy, Hanoi was the enemy capital where American POWs were tortured, and northern sights such as Ha Long Bay were off-limits. So even though I’m not the first American tourist to come here, I’ve been a little uneasy about making this trip. Neither my husband nor I have ever been to Vietnam before.
However, work has taken both of us to Afghanistan. He’s a Navy chaplain, landed in Afghanistan the first time with the Marines, just got back from his latest Afghan deployment with a NATO medical unit, MASH-style. I was in Afghanistan a couple of years ago as a reporter. So we’ve seen firsthand how decades of fighting pockmark a country with the wounds and wreckage of war, physical and emotional.
Enjoying a vacation in what used to be enemy territory may be a small, banal act, but somehow it’s restoring my faith in a larger truth: that war wounds can be healed. There on the junk with the Midwestern paramedic, I admit, “Vietnam gives me hope that maybe one day I might be able to vacation like this in Afghanistan.”