A Moment In Hue: Coming of Age in Vietnam

THE CITADEL OF HUE: Partially restored to its ancient glory

The Saigon Morin Hotel is a touch of time-worn French Colonial splendor in one of Vietnam’s most famous former capital cities, Hue.  We just spent the afternoon touring the ancient Citadel, a formidable seat of religious tradition, royal history, and the site of some of the most fierce and vicious fighting of the Vietnam War in 1968.  We’ve also spent two days buzzing about on motorbikes in the nearby countryside, visiting small rural pagodas and markets, lunching with Buddhist nuns, soaking up local color like the good tourists that we are.

COLORFUL HUE: A touch of French colonial splendor

Now, we’re alone in the hotel’s cavernous Panoramic Bar overlooking the Perfume River. A Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard movie—must be The Great Dictator—is playing for absolutely no one on a TV in a distant corner. Apparently, Chaplin was a fan of this place in his time.  It’s not a quarter-to-three, but there’s no one in the bar but BW and me and, of course, the bartender.  He sets up another round—Chablis for her, Scotch for me. Then BW asks the $64,000 question.

“Why are we here?”

I’m caught by surprise, though I oughtn’t be.  We’ve travelled half way around the world, are well beyond our typical European or US travel routine of cafe sitting, a city walk, art museum and dinner. We’re burrowing back in time in Southeast Asia, the reason for which is not at all clear. To her.  To me.

MARKET DAY: Brisk morning trade by the river outside of Hue

I’ve had canned answers for the guides, translators, drivers, expats and fellow tourists we’ve met along the way. “I was here as a soldier 47-years ago. I wanted to see the country and what happened to it since then. I’ve heard Vietnam is a beautiful place to visit, and so inexpensive, and the people are really friendly, and the food is awesome…” Yada, yada, yada.

For the record, all of the above is true. But these won’t pass muster here. Not now, not with BW.  I tear up, loose my breath and ability to speak. So does she.

JUST BW AND ME: No one in the bar

“Vietnam,” I explain after an endless minute, “is where I grew up.  It’s where I took control of my life for the first time.  Here is where I saw clearly that life was cheap, fleeting, precious.  Never before did any decision or action of mine have meaningful consequences.  I finally ‘got’ that life could be sad, if you let it; happy if you determine to make it so.”

My oh my how the truth has the power to poke through the thickest and thorniest bushes of the psyche.  Here is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to BW (back then she was simply ND), on March 21, 1971. I didn’t reread this letter until after our moment in Hue:

“I know exactly what you mean about a person determining his own “streaks”. The only thing that leaves me curious, and also somewhat forlorn, is the question of why I previously did not feel myself worthy of a life of happiness.  It is a thing that I only now realize, because I know now that I want to be happy. I deserve to be happy, and I will be happy.  I have made up my mind and it is that simple.  But I know that I never felt like this before.  It is odd, but it it also in the past.  What’s really important is that I know what I want from life and I am determined to have it—for US!”

We had a saying in 1971.  At that time, the war was in its last movement. The geopolitical dance happening at 50,000 feet was a matter of whose game pieces would land where when the music stopped.  Meanwhile, we on the ground owed it to ourselves to take responsibility for staying alive. “Gotta take care of my bod”, was what we said.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR BOD: I did, but not everyone got home in one piece (Click here for more photos of the battle of Hue by H.D.S Greenway)

So the goal was to make as few mistakes as possible, take as few risks as possible. Do the right thing and, hopefully, get home in one piece.

Many did not, but I did. Lucky? Sure. But BW was my greatest motivation. In Vietnam, I saw my future vividly. I’d return to school. I’d commute by bike. I’d get a part time job. I’d buy a car and we’d go to the beach and to the country on weekends. We’d make a life together; be happy.

And it really came to pass. All of it: the 10-speed, the college degree, a sexy Karmann Ghia ragtop, my career, a life long relationship with BW, and our two cherished children to boot (that wasn’t on the wish list at the time).

I am certainly not the only person to come of age in a war zone. Many many others did so at the point of a gun or under an artillery barrage.  Perhaps some of the 122-MM Soviet rockets lobbed into our base, or the surprise sapper attack on Firebase MaryAnn, or the DMZ-assignment to cover an air mobile assault across the Laotian border helped forge my eureka moment. But mostly I was behind a typewriter or a camera viewfinder.  So, you tell me.

Either way, I’m fairly certain of the answer to my wife’s question. We’re here in Vietnam to celebrate this life we’re living. I’m revisiting a pivotal personal episode, and doing so with BW. She was at cause then. And now. In 1971, Vietnam was the best worst time of my life. 47 years later, it’s shaping up as the best of the best.

And the food is pretty awesome, too.

HUE IMPERIAL PALACE 1968: US Marines in the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War
HUE IMPERIAL PALACE 2018: Tourists swarm where war once raged
POCK MARKED TEMPLE: War wounds scar the walls and urns of Hue’s Imperial Palace grounds
MOTOR BIKE TOUR: We buzzed about like good tourists with drivers more skilled than we
CÀ PHÊ AT HUE’S HOTEL SAIGON MORIN: Their spelling is slightly off, but Vietnamese do espresso right

12 Replies to “A Moment In Hue: Coming of Age in Vietnam

  1. Fred, how did this Little soldier dispatched into an unnecessary Vietnam war learn to write with the eloquence of a Hemingway? It’s not the espresso it must be the scotch.

    Cheers, James

  2. You humble me, James.

    By comparison, I’m not much of a writer. But there’s enormous power in essential truth–when you are willing or able to get to it. And nothing compels as real-time experience–if you can capture it. I’ve never felt so close to either as on this journey.

    And the Scotch didn’t hurt one bit either.

  3. Bred-The RHG is really proud of you & the many thousands of others who served in a war that turned out to be a national disaster, especially those who were injured & those who did not make it back!

  4. She meant the bar…”Why are we here?”…She meant why are we here at the bar, before three.

    Anyway, seriously, I’m glad you made it back too. Just you in the room created an atmosphere that permitted many awesome people to meet, interact and remain friends to this day.

  5. Very insightful account! I was particularly impressed with the adventurous spirit of Natalie & you – cruising around Hue on your motorbikes!!!

  6. Fred;
    A seminal moment in Hue indeed. I think you have stayed true to your personal commitment my friend.. Good for you. Life is precious for sure, to have that seared into your psyche in a life and death reality at a young age was in hindsight a gift. Staying true to the words you wrote n 1971 is awesome.

  7. This post really resonated with me, Fred. You have accurately articulated why the experience of life in a war zone, whether in combat or not, is so profoundly influential.
    I made several personal vows within my first month in country. First and foremost was to come home. My engagement to Lynn just prior to my tour was a beacon of light and love. Our near daily letters allowed me to focus on the future. Haven’t read them in many years. Soon.
    My second vow was to never allow myself to be manipulated by external forces, at least not without a fight. I could not control the change of status for grad students in the summer of 1968 but I could have taken steps to avoid being drafted.
    Third, I would learn something every day and find the positive within the realities of war.

    I also came home and returned to school, married, bought a couple of bikes and tooled around in a 1970 BRG Triumph GT 6+ with a surfboard on the racks.

    The life lessons that I gained in RVN are ultimately more important to my values and career than anything learned in college. Not that any of those experiences meant a damn when it came to professional development and promotion.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, Fred. Hope to meet you out east; maybe this summer.

  8. This piece made me cry. Real tears. Remembered the many letters written back and forth. You were eloquent, even then. So glad Natalie kept her letters.
    We never stopped thinking of you and praying for your safe return . Sooo happy you did come home safe and decided to be Happy because you make so many others happy.
    Have to get a tissue now….

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