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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.