Our readers share tales of their rambles around the world.
Who: Bob Shaw of McLean, Va. (author).
Where, when, why: My father, Bob Shaw, was a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War who had always wanted to return to see what he called “the most beautiful country on Earth” at peace. Sadly, he never got to make that trip. When I saw that Military Historical Tours was visiting all of the Marine locations in South Vietnam, along with a side visit to Hanoi, I jumped at the opportunity. It coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Marines’ landing in Vietnam.
Highlights and high points: We loved the city of Hue, the historic cultural, educational and imperial capital of Vietnam. The core city is mostly unchanged from the war days and bustling with activity. One of our tour guides, Chuck Meadows, was the captain who led the first Marines across the Perfume River to the ramparts of the massive Citadel on the first day of the Tet offensive. Weeks later, he helped liberate the Notre Dame Cathedral, overflowing with 3,500 refugees. Today, he is revered by members of the church. Later, we stopped by a famous local Buddhist monastery and came across a group of North Vietnamese Army vets in their distinctive dark-green uniforms, covered with medals. They were in town for the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Hue. We had an amazing time chatting with them amid mutual comradeship. The group photo reminded me of the 1903 blue-and-gray veteran reunion at Gettysburg.
Cultural connection or disconnect: Many Vietnamese people love Americans. The dollar is the only currency I used, our music is omnipresent, and English is taught from the fourth grade on. Dozens of schoolchildren approached us to practice English and share their huge admiration of the United States. The veterans in our group were stunned by the friendliness of the people.
Everyone visiting Vietnam is amazed by the number of motor scooters darting around. Hanoi, a city of more than 6 million people, has over 4 million, and the photos of the scooters carrying families, farm animals and deliveries were priceless. One day, our bus merged with thousands of motor scooters during shift change outside the factories near Phu Bai (the former home of the U.S. 101 Screaming Eagles Division).
Biggest laugh or cry: One group member was on the trip to visit Khe Sanh, where, as a young artilleryman, he endured the 77-day siege. I asked him why he joined the Marines, and he said to honor his older brother, who died in Vietnam on July 4, 1966. He didn’t know the unit or where, just the date. By cross-referencing my books, I figured out that he died near a hill that my dad served on. We made a short detour and visited the field where that happened. Although he came to Vietnam to exorcise the ghosts of Khe Sanh, he was also able to honor his brother.
How unexpected: I was surprised by how industrious the Vietnamese people are. Rice farming is a massive amount of work, but everyone in Vietnam always seems to be multi-tasking. Each student seems to have two to three side jobs, and our tour guides had a number of businesses. Once I took a 6:30 a.m. walk in Hanoi near the Hanoi Hilton (the former POW prison) and was amazed to see every shop open with people hurrying around. At night, a leather-goods shop turned into a busy noodle cafe.
Fondest memento or memory: In the basement of our home when I was growing up in Dale City was a photo of my father’s battalion leadership in front of an old French fort. The battalion of 1,400-plus Marines and sailors sustained 1,087 casualties in 1969 outside Da Nang. The area, half the size of Fairfax County, endured two-thirds of the more than 100,000 Marine casualties of the war. The Vietnamese have eradicated almost all vestiges of the “American War,” so you frequently navigate around by the French concrete forts that dot the landscape. I went to Hill 37, where my dad lived for a year, and saw a Vietnamese guardhouse with a soldier and chickens next to the stump of the French fort. I’ll treasure the photo of my dad’s unit and me in front of that fort. Now, I tell everyone to visit Vietnam to see the most beautiful country on Earth, full of vibrant, hardworking people with a bright future. Semper fidelis.
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