A week from today I leave Olympia for a month-long trip to Vietnam, my first visit to that country there since I participated in what I call the Seminar in Applied Foreign Policy* . For two of those weeks I will be a volunteer instructor in the English language program at Da Nang University. The remaining two weeks will be touring and exploring: Maggie and I will spend our first week south and east of Ho Chi Minh City and our last week in and around Hanoi.
My primary purpose is the volunteer work. The litter that my unit left in the jungles of Binh Thuy and Long Kanh provinces in 1971 led me even then to think that I should come back and pick up the trash, much like Arlo Guthrie’s restitution for the crime of littering as described in “Alice’s Restaurant”. American crimes in Vietnam were greater than littering but littering was one that I personally committed so the idea was always at the back of my mind although it was hardly more than an ironic comment on a tragic war. And, like my experience in that war, it was something that I could put aside as I returned to civilian life and its many mundane distractions.
My 2002 Appalachian Trail thru hike changed that. Walking, usually solo, for eight hours a day gave me a lot of time to think without the distractions of daily life that kept Vietnam more or less in the background. Carrying a pack through the woods every day brought that background front and center. On the trail in 2002 and again in 2005 I came to a fuller understanding of myself and my actions in that war.
Part of that understanding is the memory of wanting “pick up the trash”, to make some sort of restitution. I’m at a point in life where I very much need to do those things I’ve always thought about doing so I began casting about for volunteer opportunities in Vietnam earlier this year. The trash is long gone and I’m not qualified to remove unexploded ordnance (which is not) but I found the English language opportunity through veterans who have made their own return trips.
This trip is many things to me: restitution, healing, learning and adventure. It won’t change my previous experience but it will add new ones and add to my understanding of a nation where I lived for an entire year but experienced only as a foreign occupier. I came away from that experience with high regard for the Vietnamese, for the determination and nationalism of the North and the endurance and enterprise of the South. In 1971 I engaged the Vietnamese (all of them) as The Enemy but also learned to see them as people. This time around they and I will engage as people. That’s always the best part of any adventure.
My travel plans mean that after the coming week, this humble blog will likely be very quiet until maybe mid-January. I will not be traveling with a computer or wireless device. My access to the internet will be episodic. I will keep a journal of the trip and will photograph with a point-and-shoot digital camera for the record and my twin lens Yashica for art. I’ll have plenty to write about and show after the fact if not during.
* Also known as the Southeast Asia War Games. We placed second.