“What would possess your husband to want to return to Vietnam?”
This was a question I heard more than once as my husband, Rob, a second lieutenant in the Army in 1969 and now a soon-to-be septuagenarian, and I prepared to embark on a small group-biking adventure. We were headed to the country whose very name hung with dread over our young lives in the last years of the turbulent 1960s.
Rob had always said it was a beautiful country, despite the ravages of decades of war, and we were finally going to travel there. The trip, in February of this year, was mostly for him — especially the cycling aspect. He had become a cyclist after many years as a runner, and this trip promised to charm us, along with 22 others (none of whom we knew) with beautiful countryside scenery from the close-up and personal seats of bicycles.
We chose the tour company because it offered the cities my husband wanted to see in the area near were he had lived during his yearlong tour of duty.
First, I had to learn to become a better cyclist. I had never done much time on wheels, though we live very close to the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis, where bikers abound. We can count hundreds speeding past our house as they pedal down the parkway. So I started riding in order to be able to participate at a decent level during the seven days we would roll in Vietnam and Cambodia. A friend even coached me: I “practiced” starting and stopping in a nearby church parking lot, knowing that being able to do it well would be paramount on the trip.
Our tour leaders were fantastic fellow-travelers, delightfully congenial and engaging. Almost miraculously, my husband was able to get within a mile of the river island on which he had lived west of the city of Hoi An, getting close from a small boat that plied the waters of the Perfume River. Our in-country guide, who went by Dragon and whose father had fought for the North Vietnamese, was an immense aid, helping Rob to find this former home.
Bringing the laminated map that he had carried throughout his tour in Vietnam, Rob sought opportunities to engage, speaking Vietnamese in conversations with locals, asking if they knew Xuyen Long, another city he was stationed near for a time.
As he later explored the area alone on his bike one afternoon, he was able to find a landmark temple, perfectly matching a photo he had brought from home that marked the former site of his village. So he knew he was within a very short distance of where he had lived. And close was more than good enough.
While my husband did not mention his tour, it became obvious early in the trip that he had been there before, courtesy of Uncle Sam. We were also among the oldest in our group; most of the travelers weren’t of the age to have served. Opportunities came for him to speak with any who might be able to help in his search, and in those moments my husband’s past was revealed. These new friends were amazingly supportive and so happy when they heard that the site he had sought, for the most part, had been found.
The trip was one-in-a-lifetime, and for now in our minds never to be equaled. The biking and accommodations were fantastic. So, too, were the sights; people (especially the beautiful children); the smells; the food; the feel of endless rotation of the tires at our feet; and even the traffic we breathtakingly snaked through each day as we left the cities to roll through the lush countryside. But perhaps the best part was witnessing the thriving culture, free enterprise at its best, and a look back at the important history of these remarkable people.
Thanks to good fortune for the opportunity for such an adventure, to all the airlines whose schedules kept us on track and safely brought us to our destination, for helping us remember that 20,000 dongs equal one U.S. dollar, and most of all, for the memories. They will last a lifetime.
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