I’m sitting in an SUV, driving through the rain, flooded roads, tunnels that travel through mountains that seem to never end. I look out the window, I see rice paddies and cemeteries and I wonder just how old they are. I see children sitting on the curb by their homes, that look more to me like store fronts than living rooms, but they are in fact, living rooms. We stop at our version of a gas station, I am use to adapting to whatever those versions are in every country I have visited in the last few years. This one though has a limited selection, three choices of drinks and a Vietnamese snack I wouldn’t ordinarily dare try but this is what severe hunger and no options does to a person, pushes them, stretches them not knowing it was preparing me for the next stop, prawn wrapped in a banana leaf inside of a jelly like substance. Any way, that first snack, well I wish I had bought more.
We woke early this morning, our second full day in Da Nang. Today is the day of our tour. The tour we booked to see where my Dad was based for a good amount of his time here in Vietnam during the war, as a Combat Marine. My brother and I, feeling like today was the day we had come here for. Today was the day we could see, and feel and experience just a sliver of what is the backbone of my Father’s existence.
It was raining when we woke. I am, I must say use to Bangkok rainy season. I didn’t think too much into it, crazy right, I just assumed it would be a quick shower. So much to learn…still so much to learn. As I ate breakfast and the rain was pouring down I was still assuming (yep, you know what they say about that) that the car was waiting outside to take us on our 3 to 4 hour journey, that the rain would have no impact on. That thought erased as a hotel staff came over to our table and said “Your tour guide called, they have canceled the tour today due to flooding. There will be no tours in that area today.”
My heart sank as I took in this in. I looked up at my little brother Russ, in mid conversation with a Vietnam Vet, an American from Tennessee, on this fifth trip here. He was praising my brother and I for honoring our Dad and his experience in this way. He asked us to friend him on Facebook and if he could take a photo with us, we obliged. He shared a part of his story, where he went to Boot Camp, seeing if he and our father had crossed paths, they hadn’t, although the paths were different, they were similar. He shared his plan this trip, to plant a Christmas tree over the ridge, just nearby the hotel we were standing in. He was in combat on that ridge and lost a friend and fellow soldier there due to enemy fire. We said goodbye, me with tears in my eyes, and in Russ’s admiration.
Our new friend left us and Russ and I looked at eachother. He also has the talent of being able to hear two conversations at once. Immediately we got on our phones and tried to come up with Plan B. We looked at flights to Hue, not possible with the days we had left of our trip and flight times. We looked at extending only Russ’s stay, knowing I had a better chance of returning one day more than he did. We then went to Guest Services and pleaded with them to offer us another solution. We are sorry, no tours. It’s not safe for our guests. Russ handled the outcome better than I did. I was in shock at his peace and understanding. The hours he’d sat with my Dad, listening, embracing and supporting him as he opened up to his son over the years of the challenges, the comradery, the life lessons he took in during his time in the Corps and time in Vietnam.
I’ve lived in Thailand for nearly 5 years. Vietnam is a popular destination for those living here or on holiday in Bangkok. For years, when people asked me if we visited yet or planned to, I’d say no, continue with my prepared elevator speech…”my Dad was there when he was 19, he fought in the Vietnam War…it doesn’t feel like somewhere I want to take the boys or go on a relaxing beach holiday.” That was until my brother came to visit in November last year, on a last minute trip, this is where he chose to escape Bangkok for. I believe in the power of the universe, signs being sent our way, and paths taken when they didn’t seem clear before. Suddenly the idea of going with Russ made perfect sense, albeit missing our fearless leader, our older sister Heather, the path looked attainable, and a supportive and shocking “I am overwhelmed you would want to go there,” from our Dad, and “I support you.” This was divinely meant to be.
Now, how? How could I possible take NO for an answer due to rain and some flooding on our tour day? Russ and I went back to our hotel room and sat in silence. He laid back down and again I was wishing I had his peace and acceptance. I did what I do most days to cope with decisions to make, emotions I want to sort out or move past, I run. During the run, as it usually does, a light bulb flashes on, an idea. I decided to text the woman at the airport who so kindly arranged a car to take us to the hotel a few days earlier. She said if we needed anything to let her know. I messaged her, mid stride and shared what was going on. Her reply was the weather was poor and the area was flooded, and if we did go, there was no guarantee any of the sites would have staff there to show us around. My reply, “I don’t mind, we are here for this tour and only have one day to try, we want to try.” She replied “20 minutes, someone will pick you up.”
This all sounds a little irrational and extreme. I had this realization that all the traveling I’ve done before this, the language barriers, food and health concerns, traveling on sides of mountains for hours that shoot straight down to nothing…a boat taken over by wild monkeys with a Captain who didn’t speak English, a remote island where it was just our family and natives and their machetes? This, was within my boundaries, I felt safe with the elements of the wind and rain and the random driver they were sending us to drive 10 hours in total, that oddly felt safe too. And I was brought up to never give up.
When we got into the car the driver spoke little to no English and he had no idea where he was taking us. This is when I got nervous for the first and only time, thinking, does he not know what he said yes to? It would be 10 hours of driving us today! Through Google maps and Google translator we worked through it and showed him where we wanted to go. He said “I go get my brother, we share the drive.” Russ and I glanced at each other, with mixed emotions, fear, anxiety and nervous laughter.
With his brother now in the car, the rain pouring down we were on our way. Russ put on his ear buds and kept quiet for most of the journey. He was more nervous than I, and I respected how he had to work himself through it. I’ve coped listening to music, taking in the landscape and thinking of my Father and writing when the windy roads and my belly would allowed.
We spoke on and off to our brother team of drivers. They asked us why we wanted to go where we were headed. Russ took the phone and spoke and shared that our Father had been here, during the War. We both held our breath not knowing what they’d say. They both smiled and laughed and said their Father had fought too, and they called us in Vietnamese, brothers bonded by Fathers who fought in the Vietnam War. That universe again…tears and an overwhelming feeling that these two boys who had no experience as tour guides were maybe just what we were meant to have guiding us. As we drove through Hue along Rt 9, to Khe Sanh where the lovely lady at the airport said we could absolutely try to get to today. That was where my Dad was served with his brother Marines, for a brief period, Khe Sanh, and other Marine outposts along the DMZ, initially set up to stop infiltration from North Vietnam along Rt. 9. It became a massive battleground over many years.
It was rainy and windy, we took our umbrellas and set feet down again where we knew our Dad’s had been. A museum was there now, filled with photographs and maps hanging on the wall. There were cases filled with old weapons and bombs, uniforms, radios. The photos captioned in Vietnamese and English easy to read, and yet not, as it was graphic and one sided and yet captivating. Russ and I quietly walked through and when finished went outside to meet our poncho covered tour guides.
They told us what certain places were on the land had there years ago…now full of green grass, re-dug trenches and to my surprise tiny flowers. There was a piece of the air strip and rebuilt bunkers that we stood in to give the tourists the “feeling” of what the Marines were facing. I don’t think any type of rebuilt anything can help us understand and feel what they felt. I hung back, let Russ and the guides go on. I turned my phone onto video mode, I began talking to my Dad. It felt natural, if he wasn’t able to be by my side then this was the next best option. I showed him where we were, put Russ in view as he looked around.
I panned to Tiger Hill and let him see the planes they dropped in from Saigon years ago for the purpose of sightseeing the battle ground. I told him how I loved him and how brave he was, I swallowed my tears as I spoke, still not knowing all of the knowing he knew. After the tour was over we sat down and Russ had a coffee, now to me, that was crazy. A shop setup to buy souvenirs and have a snack. Our mouths quiet and our minds racing to take in what we’d seen and the emotions we were hiding inside. I know my brother all too well and again let him sit in silence and process, he like my Father speaks with only meaning and purpose.
The Road to Khe Sanh was that. A road, bumpy, windy, flooded, with horns beeping, dark tunnels and no real understanding of where we would get to, how long it would take and if we could see what we came to see and feel in respect and honor for not only our Dad but the other soldiers fighting a battle that remains in history as one of the most deadly and controversial wars.
My Dad’s 19 year old feet landed in Da Nang airport and his shiny boots went onto a helicopter and landed him in “living hell,” as he says. Those boots lost their shine and he took everything they had prepared him for and used it, along with his inner strength that carried him home to safety, 13 months later. Our journeys, although impossible to really compare, were filled in their own way with struggles, worry, defeat and defying the odds against us.
Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid, one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory. Douglas MacArthur