Coming to this part of the world, my entire focus was on Japan. It was the place I’d always wanted to visit since childhood, so all I could see was the neon lights of Tokyo. I was definitely going to end up in other places afterwards but, I thought to myself, no plan, let’s just see where the wind blows.
A few months before departing I read a book that was highly recommended by a good friend: Aftermath by Donovan Webster. In this book, the author describes in shocking detail the consequences of the wars fought throughout the 20th century – consequences beyond the body counts after the battles. From acres of land in France still saturated with landmines to the skeleton fields of Russia where multitudes of under equipped soldiers froze or starved to death. In one chapter he details the after effects of the Vietnam war such as unexploded ordinance still killing people today and babies that are being born with birth defects due to the liberal use of Agent Orange during the conflict. It was this chapter in that piqued my interest in visiting Vietnam.
Not having considered where I would end up after Japan, Vietnam hadn’t entered my thoughts at all. After reading about what had happened though, I decided this was a must visit destination. Not because of what happened though. I’m not a particularly morbid guy, although I do consider my own mortality from time to time (usually just before getting on a plane). I feel this is an important subject to meditate on as it puts all of the petty problems in life into perspective. But I’m not overly fascinated with it, so I don’t actively seek death and destruction, I simply pay close attention when it is there.
What appealed to me was the attitude of the Vietnamese people. An example that highlighted this mindset was a story of a farmer whose land had been decimated by falling bombs, leaving his fields fallow. Instead of wasting the rest of his life wallowing in misery and self pity, what did he do? He dug trenches between the craters, connecting them, filled the whole lot with water and started a fish farm, becoming wealthy in the process! Another story was about a young woman who stepped on a landmine, which resulted in the loss of one of her legs. Again, did she succumb to bitterness and self pity? Not she did not. She went out, sought bits of scrap metal from recovered missiles and the like and built herself a prosthetic leg! These stories astonished me. If ever I was to fall victim to some terrible accident or injury, I sincerely hope I could adopt a similar attitude of forbearance.
Nowadays, it’s almost as if the war never happened. Streets are bustling, roads are pandemonium, crowded with madcap traffic and everywhere there is life in all it’s vibrancy and glory. The Vietnamese are a delightful people, full of smiles and humour and even the hustlers ply their trade with decency and respect. If you are approached by a guy on a motorbike offering a lift, you will often find yourself having an agreeable conversation with the man. When you politely refuse, occasionally they might persist a little but, never enough to cross the line of being disrespectful or pushy.
The memory of what happened is still there of course. Visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I was presented with some of the most disturbing images I have ever seen. Pictures of deformed babies; pictures of people moments before they were murdered, terror leaking from their eyes; pictures of people being beaten and tortured, their tormentors grinning all the while; it was harrowing and frightening and I came close to tears more than once. These are images that demanded I put my camera away, images that burn themselves into the lens of one’s memory painfully, permanently. Images I know I will have until my last breath.
Moving through the exhibits, following the arrows, the progression is one of optimism. Starting with the horror show, by the end my soul was assuaged by walls covered with photos of survivors and their children, delightful and beautiful, smiling and laughing. To me this illustrated that hate is only as powerful as you allow it to be. If you let it go, it will let go of you.
I left feeling strangely uplifted and hopeful for the future. If this nation can move forward after suffering such atrocities, how can we, as individuals, hold onto petty, banal grievances and grudges that pale in comparison?