“Vietnam” meant “the Vietnam War” when I was growing up. The Vietnamese had a different name for the conflict: “the American War.”
What surprised me when Champa and I visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand this past month wasn’t the nomenclature but how infrequently people spoke about the war. They were too busy making money and living their lives. They all greeted us warmly, including some former soldiers we met, like the man in the photo below. Most people, like the students you see visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex in Hanoi, were born after the war ended.
The war is hardly forgotten. In Ho Chi Minh City — formerly Saigon — we visited a museum that highlighted acts of American brutality, such as the My Lai massacre, and the ongoing devastation caused by unexploded bombs and Agent Orange.
In Phnom Penh, we saw piles of human skulls at a memorial to victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Walking in the killing fields, where so many people were murdered, reminded me of visiting Auschwitz in Poland. The evil was palpable and overwhelming.
Our guides told us personal stories about relatives and friends who suffered and died. One guide began weeping. Another stared away for several moments.
Yet they and others seemed genuinely happy we were there and not only because we were bringing them business after the pandemic. They were proud of their history, their culture and their progress. They wanted us to know they are more than the place where America fought a misguided war. Much more.
Champa and I traveled across Southeast Asia with two old friends, Mitch and Chiyoko. We planned everything with a Hanoi company that prepared a custom itinerary and arranged for guides, drivers and accommodations at every stop. They did a great job for much less than we would have paid a Western company for a group tour.
We started in Hanoi, took a cruise along the breathtaking Halong Bay (above), then flew to Hoi An — a very pleasant place — and Ho Chi Minh City. From Vietnam we went to Cambodia, where we visited Angkor Wat, a floating village and several temples in Siem Reap. Next was Phnom Penh to see the killing fields, the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda and more.
Our third country was Laos, where we spent a day in the capital, Vientiane, then took a newly opened train to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site with beautiful temples and a waterfall park that resembles the set of Avatar.
From there we took a boat up the Mekong River for two days to the border with Thailand, visiting a cave and villages along the way and stopping overnight for a hillside sunset and dinner. Our first stop in Thailand was Chiang Rai, where we visited the Golden Triangle and the White Temple, then drove to Chiang Mai to savor its spectacular temples and take a Thai cooking class. Finally we flew to Bangkok, where we explored everything from a floating market to an organic farm, along with still more temples.
It was a busy itinerary — too busy, perhaps — but we came home with a new appreciation for a part of the world I’d misunderstood and done my best to avoid when I was younger.
I plan to post additional stories that highlight the most memorable things we saw. If you want to update your own understanding of this extraordinary region, I invite you to stick around.