Moving Forward, Remembering the Past: A Journey Through Vietnam

Vietnam has featured large in our lives. As boomers, we came of age at the height of a war that divided our country. And while my husband, luckily, was never drafted, the Vietnam War forever changed us and our country. We recently returned from a 3rd Act Adventure to Vietnam, where we learned how it changed Vietnam, too.

Led by Overseas Adventure Travel, our group of 16 spent the better part of a month traveling the length of Vietnam, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), with seven of us traveling on to Cambodia. The experience was humbling, fascinating, inspiring, and sometimes dispiriting.

This was a full-immersion adventure into the country and its culture. We experienced the beauty and the poverty, the great progress the country is making, and where they still fall behind. The Vietnamese people we met were open, welcoming, and warm. The level of honesty and connection we experienced was remarkable. We expanded our understanding of the country’s history and culture; we experimented with new foods and flavors; we connected with local people on a human level; and we deepened our understanding of opportunities and challenges facing Vietnam and its impact on our larger, connected planet.

We also saw and experienced some of the painful legacy of the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War”). We shared meals and talked with veterans from every side of the conflict: the South Vietnamese Army, North Vietnamese Army, and Viet Cong. All of them suffered in one way or another during the war or its aftermath. But every person we met was focused on the future, not the past.

We saw evidence of how American bombs, napalm, and Agent Orange not only killed and maimed people, but decimated Vietnam’s wildlife and environment and destroyed ancient temples and historical treasures. Some of it is starting to recover. Sadly, some of it never will.

Cambodia’s magnificent historical sites like Angkor Wat were spared by bombing, but their people were not spared by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of the country’s urban dwellers, middle-class, and intellectuals. During our short visit, we focused on seeing the historical sites and unfortunately did not have an opportunity to visit with people who survived the genocide, yet we know that Cambodia’s people are still not out of the political woods.

Visiting these countries makes me pay more attention to their history and plight. It also motivates me to stay politically and environmentally engaged in our country. It reminds me how important it is to safeguard our freedoms, and how easily we can slide dangerously close to the abuses and corruption seen in autocratic regimes.

Our next 3rd Act Adventure will take us to another region that’s seen strife and genocide in recent history: Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Herzegovina, and Slovenia. The trip is planned for spring 2021. We invite you to be part of our small group as we continue to explore, grow, and learn about the world. Watch the magazine for details.

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