We are now less than a week away before my friend Tony and I leave for our trip to Vietnam, Laos and Hong Kong (see Tony’s post here). I’ve been scrambling to digest books, documentaries, films, podcasts, World Bank reports, newspaper articles, guidebooks and travel blogs. Yet, I’ve only scratched the surface.
Why do I feel so unprepared? In the past, I’ve done my homework and plotted out detailed itineraries for travels to Cambodia, Egypt and Tanzania. Why is this any different? My rambles have taught me the value of letting a day unfold at its own pace so I’m less concerned with mapping each day in excruciating detail. Of course, I have lists of historical sites, great restaurants and food stands, and cultural attractions but these are simply a reference point should our path take us in their direction.
I sense that my unease lies in the gravity tied to the steps ahead. I was in elementary and the early years of high school during the Vietnam war (or the American War as it is referred to in Vietnam). Yet those nightly news casts are seared into my memory. When we tread the ground in Vietnam and Laos, we are standing on land infused with so much death and destruction.
Tony and I just went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here in Washington DC to contemplate the 58,318 individual names inscribed on that wall. We will now be in the land where it is estimated that up to 3.5 million people lost their lives during the war. And death is a desperately inadequate measure for the pain and destruction.
Some of you may also know that I’ve served in the past on the board of Legacies of War, an organization dedicated to the clearance of unexploded bombs in Laos. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. An estimated 30 percent of the ordnance did not explode on impact, leaving one-third of the land contaminated. As a result, more than 20,000 people have been killed or injured since the bombings ended.
No wonder I feel the weight of this trip. I know there will be much to celebrate. The street food is renowned, and we plan to gorge ourselves. We are also excited to delve into the culture, the religion and the history that extends back centuries. And, of course, we’ll spend evenings experiencing the night life and racking up a few three bar nights. But the history of that twenty years of war will never be far.
For those of you who are interested, I’ve listed materials I’ve consumed over the past weeks below. Please share your suggestions on other books, films and resources that I should track down. Our visit is only the beginning of my journey.
- The American War, podcast by the Washington Post (2017)
- A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan
- City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong, Leo Ou-fan Lee
- Dispatches, Michael Herr
- Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall
- Go Tell the Spartans, Hollywood film (1978)
- Ho Chi Minh, a biography by William J. Duiker
- At Home in the World, Thich Nhat Hanh
- Pete Peterson: Assignment Hanoi, PBS film (1999)
- Regret to Inform, a documentary by Barbara Sonnenborn (1998)
- Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg
- The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
- The Ugly American, Hollywood film (1963)
- Viet Nam: The Atlantic Philanthropies, Lien Hoang
- Vietnam: The Next Generation, PBS film (2005)
- Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns, David Lamb
- Vietnam Passage: Journeys from War to Peace, PBS film (2002)
- Vietnam: Rising Dragon, Bill Hayton
- The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, a ten-part, 18-hour documentary series on PBS (2017)