Part one of a series.
Humidity nearly matches temperature on a sweltering autumn afternoon, so five of us head to a 20-mile-long beach with persistent breezes and few weekday sunbathers.
The two-mile taxi ride costs $4, total. Another buck buys a bottle of beer and cushy chaise lounge seating. Shore-walking vendors hawk handheld fans, hand-painted bookmarks and little tins of “tiger balm,” an herbal salve with a whiff of menthol.
The setting is China Beach, known as My Khe by the locals. Credit for the nickname goes to American soldiers and, a decade later, creators of the “China Beach” dramatic TV series.
This place of respite during the Vietnam War shows no hint of combat, conflict or stress today. The biggest unrest comes from the occasional typhoon. Stacks of sandbags lead to beachfront, not trenches. Adventurous tourists bounce above white-capped waves or paddle kettle-shaped boats made of bamboo.
Nov. 11 is when we honor the service, sacrifice and patriotism of U.S. military veterans, but the bloodshed of battle scars all nations. “War does not determine who is right – only who is left,” Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and political activist, observed long ago.
Operations such as Vietnam Battlefield Tours specialize in war history itineraries, as a way to satisfy curiosity or cultivate closure among vets, but others arrange tours of a more generic nature.
“Older men declare war,” Herbert Hoover noted, “but it is the youth that must fight and die.” The 31st president died one year before U.S. air raids in the former North Vietnam began 50 years ago.
The same year – 1965 – is when combat troops first arrived to defend a U.S. airfield in Da Nang, just 18 miles north of our patch of tranquil China Beach. Now Da Nang is turning into a high-end haven for vacations and weddings. Although gambling is illegal for the Vietnamese, the area provides casinos for visitors.
“The most surprising thing is how Vietnam, as a society, seems to have moved on and welcomes all, including Americans,” says John Harvey, a grad of Appleton’s Lawrence University. His 22 years of military service included a Vietnam stint as an Air Force pilot in 1963-65.
“They have moved on, so I don’t see why we can’t,” rationalizes John, one of four vets in our 10-day Gate 1 Travel group of 36. He and wife Hyonsuk “Sue” Harvey live in Amherst, N.H., and say they did not visit Vietnam to obsess about war history. What they preferred to learn was a mix of history, heritage and culture.
Almost 450,000 U.S. visitors explored Vietnam in 2014, a 3 percent increase from 2013. Of the 7.8 million total tourists, more are from China, Korea and Japan. They come for the sacred pagodas and temples, the shopping for silks and tailored suits, the scenic beauty and the many stories, which include reminders of wartime.
Tour guides warn that “American War” museums tell the story of 1965-75 from the Vietnamese perspective. They know which one-recipe restaurants will sit well with Western travelers, how to choose the best boat rides and find the most authentic craft villages.
Most important is learning how to cross streets, abuzz with a thick parade of motor scooters. The safety of this synchronized ballet around vehicles and pedestrians depends on predictability of movement: That means not racing, sputtering or stopping abruptly when on wheels or afoot.
From Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, bumper-to-bumper traffic seems oblivious to crosswalks and red lights. Motor bikes park on sidewalks, forcing walkers onto roadsides. But after 10 days, the only accident I noticed involved me.
While second-guessing myself in the maze of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a few steps from the curb, I saw a green light and instinctively stepped back, then fell as a tire clipped my calf. Horns beeped, scooters swerved and I amazingly lived to tell the story.
So a trip to Vietnam is not for the novice traveler. Alertness, fitness and resilience are important. Think hikes in humidity, stone steps without handrails, more flights of stairs than elevators, using bottled water while brushing teeth.
Vendors barter assertively in many countries, but here the peddle and push is not limited to markets. It happens at café tables, beach chairs, riverside strolls and windowside cruise seats (little boats speed over to sell bananas by the bunch).
What else? People, including the persistent merchants, are friendly and helpful. UNESCO designates scenery and monuments as world treasures. Seeing how families survive on the average wage, less than $200 per month, is humbling.
You won’t see marble statues carved or rice harvested in the Midwest, and that also is a part of what can broaden your world perspective. Communism is the ruling party, but outsiders feel appreciated more than tolerated.