My wife and I just got back from a two week tour of Vietnam and Cambodia, our 50th wedding anniversary gift to each other. Seeing the temples of Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list, and since we were so close to Vietnam (a place where I still have unfinished business) why not go there too.
We eased into the experience with a 3 -day sailing trip in Halong Bay, an hours drive from Hanoi. These peaceful, protected waters in the South China Sea features thousands of luxuriant tropical islands that arise from the azure blue waters like sculpted stone monuments. We sailed with 15 young people from Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas on a Chinese junk. We watched fishermen cast their nets, played with monkeys on sandy beaches, and in the evenings, away from all wireless connections, we were left to drinking beer in moonlight, and under starry skies listened to each other’s stories.
In this picture postcard setting, people appreciating the richness of their cultural differences, we sang and danced as a global community. It was the perfect prelude before opening old wounds and rage at American complicity in that disastrous war.
From Hanoi we went to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where in the central marketplace a beggar, whose hand was extended, approached me As he got closer I saw how grossly disfigured he was; a single eye and no eyelids, his mouth open but without lips, the burned face of a phosphorus bomb survivor. I couldn’t look at him and walked away.
From the marketplace we went to the War Remnants Museum. Walking up the steps of this stark, gray-walled monolith into the atrium, we were greeted by a dozen grossly deformed young people suffering from the teratogenic side effects of Agent Orange. They were born without arms and legs, some hydrocephalic or microcephalic, some brain-damaged, some standing on crutches others sitting in wheelchairs. They were all singing Christmas carols to the accompaniment of a skeletally deformed pianist.
I didn’t want to look at them either; so again I walked away into a photographic exhibit by 134 journalists from 11 countries, all of whom were killed during the Vietnam War. In this museum there was no walking away; the images were horrific, and in spite of my antiwar activism I felt ashamed to be an American. For the first time I experienced what many Germans felt (even those who were members of underground resistance movements) after World War II’s revelation of the death camps. By the time I was ready to leave I knew I would not look away from the Agent Orange carolers. I went and stood with them joining in the caroling…Come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant… we held onto each other and took pictures together.
In their joyful spirit and resilience, I felt my unfinished business settled. Surrounded by a new generation I feel hope for the future, and this is my wish and blessing for us all in the New Year…may we sing together in peace as a global community. I say this for all my relations, Mi Takuye Oyasin.