My first job was in Viet Nam right out of college. Last year I went back with a group led by the writer Le Ly Hayslip. Here are small “letters” about the trip -“Letters to My Daughter” I call them. She’s the one who always wanted to know about the war. I wrote these as posts and I liked readers’ responses so I kept them here.
1. Storytellers of the War
February 1, 2023
I’ll address these notes to you, my daughter, about this whole venture I’m on to return to Viet Nam. I’ve addressed nearly all my writing about the US war in Viet Nam to you. You were eight when you first asked about the war. Your father was in the military, and I remember the day you asked, “How come Dad didn’t go to Viet Nam, and you did?”
I don’t know. Dad had been spared since he was in graduate school. For me, one thing had just led to another. A Red Cross recruiter came to my Texas college. They wanted young people who could bring something of home to the soldiers in the war, and show them they hadn’t been forsaken. I was young.
But after you asked, I started writing, so I could try to tell you about that year I went.
Today you’re not surprised I want to go back. We trace the route I’ll travel from Boston to Detroit, to Seoul, to Saigon. You shake your head.
Remember the wall of books in our Portsmouth house, upstairs along the hall? Our bench there overlooked the back cove of the Piscataqua. The books were a part of all the Air Force bases and reassignments and new schools. I remember the places we went by the books we read – Rome, NY, Omaha, Upper Heyford, Pease. The last one brought us to New Hampshire. With all those books in our lives, it makes some sense to tell you why I’m preparing to return by talking about the storytellers of the war.
Now I want to tell you I was totally shaped by Graham Greene’s fiction when I was in college. Don’t read him, Lizzie. The Quiet American is set during the French occupation of Vietnam. They called the country, along with Cambodia and Laos, French Indo-China. His lead, Fowler, is a jaded British reporter. He’s covered the French occupation a long time and is clear-eyed about the hopelessness of the whole thing for the Vietnamese, the French, and the looming Americans. He also knows the complexities, the vice grip, of situations people are put in when they must serve in a war. He’s in love with a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong, who wants to survive. In Saigon’s still famous Continental Hotel, he meets Pyle, an American policy maker. The French will fall in the famous battle at Dien Bien Phu, but they haven’t yet. It’s a long time before President Kennedy will send the Green Berets. It’s still 1953. Fowler offers Pyle information about the way of things, but finds that Pyle “was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined — I learnt that very soon — to do good.” Pyle is oblivious to the culture he has entered.
Be sure not to read this book, Lizzie and all the sons and daughters. It’s true, though, that if I hold the book and open to the first scene, I can’t close it. I am gripped by Greene’s manner of holding a story as a whole. He begins with the climax and weaves it through. The whole is in every scene. It’s all there, and you read in awe at the way he unfolds the tale. It is prophetic and spellbinding. And the American grunts I knew haven’t even arrived.
Here’s why you can’t read The Quiet American. It was written with all the sensibility of the 1950s around what a woman is. Graham Greene writes Phuong, who is Fowler’s lover, as a symbol. He writes that embracing her is like holding a bird, and I think of the slender thread that is the shape of Viet Nam. She is a symbol of an occupied country, which could be interesting if we could have met her as a woman, too. But Greene doesn’t let us hear her voice. You need to hear the voices of the girls and the women.
This same year I’m going back to Vietnam, I’m selling our house with the bookshelves and the bench by the window overlooking the cove. I wonder if the new people will keep the floors and the stairs the same aqua blue you said was fine but was not authentic to the period. (You became a historian.) The books are gone. But the stories I tell you here will be on the bookshelf in our minds.
Everything I tell you won’t be about the storytellers of the war. But look how words can be breath and life. These are lines from a poem by a young Vietnamese American woman who grew up in California, Mai Nguyen Do (Đỗ Nguyên Mai). https://donguyenmai.com/
In her poem “Unanswered,” the speaker is one who hasn’t survived, but fiercely and tenderly gives strength to a refugee who crosses the sea in a “ship” and lives. The poem ends,
when I become the sea
swelling beneath your swaying ship –
I will carry you
Next Letter: “When I Meet Le Ly”
15 Responses to “Letters to My Daughter: Storytellers of the War”
- Toni St Germain February 2nd, 2023(Edit) Fascinating. I want to read more. There is a manicurist in the salon nest to the yoga studio who came to the US via US Navy after she was picked up from a boat the her mother put her on to escape Viet Nam. She is a delighted woman. She is now an American citizen and very Americanized. Her story is very interesting. Have a good trip. Reply
- Terryfarish February 4th, 2023 (Edit) Hi Toni, Your friend for sure has a story to tell. Give her my warm wishes. Thanks for your good wishes. Terry Reply
- Terry Karnan February 2nd, 2023(Edit) Anxious to hear more. Reply
- mimi white February 2nd, 2023(Edit) Every daughter should be lucky enough to have a mother who creates stories and loves books so much that she builds a literary shrine to them. More, please. Reply
- Maren C. TirabassiFebruary 4th, 2023(Edit) This is truly wonderful. Thanks you for sharing these stories not just with your daughter but with all of us. Reply
- Pat Spalding February 4th, 2023 (Edit) Hey Terry. I want to hear more sooner rather than later. I was all settled in for a longer piece. This was just a brief taste. Please – send more . . . now. Reply
- terryfarish February 4th, 2023 (Edit) Hi Pat, I like the fire you’re building for me. I have so many stories. Among them is my search for the young student I told the story about for True Tales. Terry Reply
- Katherine TowlerFebruary 5th, 2023(Edit) Thank you for introducing us to Mai Nguyen Do and for sharing these wonderful reflections, Terry. So excited for you as you prepare to make this trip and can’t wait to read more. Reply
- Stephanie Seacord February 6th, 2023(Edit) So many of us have these untold stories among our own family memory libraries. Reply
- Lane Stallings February 26th, 2023 (Edit) I’m almost sure that photo was made in Qui Nhon. In any case, I love it! That’s my Terry!
2. When I Met Le Ly
February 9, 2023
I spent a long time imagining who I might go to Viet Nam with. Who would come with me? This was a journey I didn’t want to do alone. My friend Rodger, who had been a combat engineer in the war, went back with his daughter, Marieke. Rodger is a poet and journalist and describes his return in his writings. My friend Matt had been to Tibet on a spiritual journey. I didn’t know what a spiritual journey looked like, but the focus made me curious since that was a little of the journey of my life from the young Texas girl in anti-war America who was simply curious about Viet Nam.
I called the man who ran a group called “Soldiers on a Mission.” He was planning a trip for fall 2022, but the Vietnamese government wouldn’t let them come anymore on the visa they had come on. I found later they were on a Christian mission, in addition to being vets on a medical mission. Evangelical Christianity is considered “suspect” by the Communist government. Anyway, it was their last mission.
It would have been one thing to travel with a group of vets, with this group or another. I had been the champion of soldiers. I would have learned a lot with a group of people who had been shaped by the war in all our odd ways. But I didn’t want to see Viet Nam that way. We’ve had a sort of a refrain, Lizzie. I say, Do you remember…. And you say, Mom, I wasn’t born yet. And we laugh. It’s just so funny, I imagine you as a part of all my life. You were always curious why I went to the war. I wanted to understand that better myself by meeting people in Viet Nam today
Years pass. It’s 1987. You’re ten years old. That’s the year I started as the children’s librarian in Leominster, MA. Along with the French Canadian kids and the Italians and the Irish, here were all these Vietnamese kids whose families had resettled in the area. In Leominster, I read Vietnamese folktales along with tales of other cultures for story times. I met Vietnamese moms and dads. I began to experience the culture with the families, now some 9,000 miles from home.
A few years later, a book was published that filled in a vast gap of my knowledge of the war. It was from the Vietnamese point of view. I had devoured the accounts by U.S. soldiers and journalists. I’d never read the story of a Vietnamese woman and now here was a book available in English. It was called When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip, a young Vietnamese-American woman. The New York Times headlined a review of her book with the words, A CHILD’S TOUR OF DUTY:
New York Times Review of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip (1989)
I read the book then and am re-reading it now. She addresses Americans, maybe especially returned veterans as her husband had been. In the prologue she writes:
It was not your fault. It could not have been otherwise. Long before you arrived, my country had yielded to the terrible logic of war.
Then we hear the reality of her life as a child in a village at war. Ky La in central Vietnam is a village shattered. Le Ly describes a war between the communist north steeped in Buddhist tradition and the south with a U.S.-backed president and long shadows of French colonialism and Catholicism.
“For you it was a simple thing: democracy against communism. For us, that was not our fight at all. For most of us it was a fight for independence…“
Many Vietnamese-American writers have followed Le Ly, bringing the changing interpretations of cultural identity and dialogues between east and west. To me, Le Ly offered a bridge to cross.
Oct. 2022. I continued my search for someone to travel with. I found academic trips with an agency in Boulder, and that would have gotten me deep into the history and culture of Vietnam. The tour was described as luxurious and that concerned me as I didn’t desire luxury. I imagine that there would be westerners in evening attire having cocktails like the English on the patios I’d pictured in A Passage to India. No. I couldn’t do that.
Then I found the impossible. The same agency introduced another tour. Le Ly Hayslip was organizing a pilgrimage to her home village near Danang in February, 2023. Le Ly had invited others to join her to highlight the humanitarian work she with others have done for decades. “34 years ago, Le Ly’s newly-inaugurated East Meets West Foundation commenced its mission of healing the wounds of war in Vietnam.” The journey takes us from Saigon, to Le Ly’s home village once called Ky La, and to schools and clinics her foundation supports. Then we go to Hanoi, a city where I have never been.
During the months we prepared for the journey, Le Ly and I became friends. She has read my children’s books and my writing collaborations across culture. We began to talk about preparing folktales in English, tales her mother told to her when Le Ly was little. Heaven and Earth is full of passed-down tales and lullabies from mother to daughter and father to daughter. They reflect the world at war she grew up in and a world she wants to document for all generations. She writes:
Children and soldiers have always known [war] to be terrible.
Next: It takes a village to leave a village
3 Responses to “Letters to My Daughter: When I Met Le Ly”
- Terry Karnan February 10th, 2023 (Edit) Thanks. So glad to learn of this. Reply
- Maren C. Tirabassi February 10th, 2023 (Edit) This is so exciting to actually be with her. And for us wonderful that you will bring so many things back. Reply
- Rodger February 13th, 2023 (Edit) You go, girl! You will return changed in a good way.
3. It Takes a Village
February 16, 2023
Return to Viet Nam.3.
I have to start with the small Covid test panel to which I add three drops of the concoction I’d created. I do this after a close exposure within my family. So my C line lights up. OK. But I have to give it 15 minutes. Then the T line shows really faint. But I know, I can’t go to Viet Nam.
“Mom,” you say, “that’s what everybody has to do. Everybody’s things get cancelled.” I sit with that.
I called Rebecca to tell her I had to teach my yoga class tonight on zoom, and I couldn’t go to Viet Nam. We solved the class issue, but about the journey, Rebecca said not so fast. She pulled up the CDC calculator. When are you leaving? It was today you tested positive? The CDC site calculated I could end isolation on the day before my flight was scheduled. Unless I get worse symptoms.
Wendy texted fluids, fluids, fluids. I see it takes a village to leave a home. Part of the village are now the triage nurses at Kittery Family Practice who get me Paxlovid and you, Lizzie, picked it up because I’m isolated and sad. And you brought me soup from Ceres.
A bit in limbo, I write this post about the many people who have been a part of my working to get on the plane. I’m determined to imagine.
Through Facebook, I’ve been in touch with a few other Red Cross workers. They are a part of the village. I re-met René Johnson who was in my training class in DC. I have followed Penni Evans and Lane Query Stallings. I’ve read Ann Kelsey and Sandra Lockney Davis, who were Special Services. René had recently traveled to Viet Nam. We talked by phone and she is the only Red Cross worker I’ve talked to in some depth about her experience. She also told me the vaccines you really need if you go. René introduced me to members of the American Red Cross Overseas Association.
A large group of English language learners are with me, people I’ve read stories with and many have written their own experiences. This very morning I met, on zoom, with students from Second Start Adult Education in Concord, NH. Their teachers said they are reading books about food and differences between cooking in the U.S. and their home countries. In that vein, they’ve just read A Feast for Joseph about a small boy from Uganda and South Sudan. They sent me pictures of favorite foods they loved as children. Here are dishes a South Sudanese student sent. Thank you, my friends, at Second Start.
Another member of my village is Emma Spencer who interviewed me for her thesis project at Amherst College. It was a work of photojournalism called Vietnam War Veterans Now and Then and was another link to the country for me. Emma wrote that when she arrived at Amherst, she took a history course called “The Modern American Experience of War Through Literature and Film,” taught by Mark Jacobson which was a step in her inspiration for the project.
Katie, in my village, taught in Hanoi, and introduced me to The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, and this book travels with me. Maren wrote me a good luck charm which I need. She wrote: “You will not bring enough paper notebooks for the times you want to write something down and a computer is not present. You will find something about geography or tradition or music or art or storytelling you had forgotten and you will discover something amazingly new.”
You are all with me. And while I’m drinking fluid, fluids fluids, I’m deep into Le Ly’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places again. I’ll always remember brother Sau Ban of Le Ly’s memories and wonder if I’ll meet young cousins in the family who look just like Sau Ban. Or Anh. Or Mama Du.
Now I’ll sleep and be ready.
6 Responses to “Letter to My Daughter: It Takes a Village”
- Pat Spalding February 17th, 2023 (Edit) Thanks for taking us along with you Terry. i want to look up some of these books.
xo, Pat Reply
- terryfarish February 17th, 2023 (Edit) You are welcome on this journey. Reply
- Katherine Towler February 17th, 2023 (Edit) Sending you big healing hugs as you get through this, Terry. I am glad you have The Mountains Sing and glad to be part of the village. Take care and get well. Reply
- Maren C. TirabassiFebruary 18th, 2023(Edit) I read this a few days late, Terry (after five months, Don got his diagnosis of RA and we’ve been scurrying. We knew it was coming but couldn’t do anything until someone official wrote it down.) I am hoping that in these days of Covid the water has washed away your poisons like the winter waves have washed our north Atlantic beaches and you can go to the place where you know that people instinctively understand village. How blessed we are to be your village here. Reply
- terryfarish February 22nd, 2023 (Edit) The water did wash the poisons out and away.
I am in Saigon seeing it in a most amazing way through multiple points of view. Reply
- Mary Nolin February 21st, 2023 (Edit) Thank you for visiting our Second Start class last week Terry. Our Sudanese student really has come alive in discussion and activities and I attribute this to your book A Feast for Joseph. When we spoke with them today, they all said they loved meeting you and that you were such an interesting person. I am so sorry that COVID is causing difficulties for your travel plans to Viet Nam. I hope you are feeling better
4. Here is Saigon
February 22, 2023
I arrived in Saigon on Monday. All is well and strong and healthy. It’s dawn on my first morning. This is the sidewalk cafe of the Hotel Continental. Yes, that Continental.
We are a few days in Saigon before we fly to Danang in Central Viet Nam. A first event here was a panel discussion on women running nonprofits or foundations in Vietnam. Le Ly was on the panel, “Women Entrepreneurs & Social Impact” at the American Center at the U.S. Embassy and our small group all joined her.
Le Ly had words of advice for the young women. “Don’t fall in love and have babies. Put on a back pack and see reality. Go out in the world and help people. When you say ‘yes’, you open a door.” Trang was born when Vietnam was just opening to visitors and commerce after the 20-year U.S. embargo was lifted. Have a mission, yes, Trang said. But learn what organizations and communities specifically need.
Later we went to a small restaurant up a flight of stairs on a backstreet beside a small museum in a small, narrow building. Beneath it was a a tunnel where soldiers once stockpile massive amounts of weapons and munitions. The museum honors the stealth and skill of the soldiers at this site beneath and beside a popular local cafe frequented by soldiers of the South and Americans. Everyone here has their own story about the American war in their country if you ask them. At the same time, I have heard GI slang, and they have the most wonderful French way to make a cup of coffee.
11 Responses to “Here is Saigon”
- mimi Beth white February 23rd, 2023 (Edit) I am amazed. History come alive–yes that Hotel. You look radiant. Thank you for taking the time to write us back here and everywhere in the world where people follow you. It’s a snow day here! I had babies, I fell in love. Now is my time to see what others need. Sending so much love, Mimi Reply
- Deborah Bruss February 23rd, 2023 (Edit) Thank you for sharing this amazing experience. Reply
- Terry Karnan February 23rd, 2023 (Edit) Thanks for sharing. Reply
- Maren C. Tirabassi February 23rd, 2023 (Edit) Wonderful — thank you. My small chuckle — I am imagining Le Ly saying “you mothers — don’t insist your daughters fall in love and have babies (well, not yet) so they feel free to put on a backpack and go! Reply
- Katherine Towler February 23rd, 2023 (Edit) Oh, I wish I was there with you! So wonderful to see these photos and to be transported to a place I love so. A young woman I worked with at the university in Hanoi who became a dear friend was also named Trang Nguyen. Thank you for bringing us with you. Reply
- judith dickerman-nelson February 24th, 2023(Edit) Terry, I am so glad that you are sharing your journey for the rest of us!
Thank you! Reply
- Margaret Omer March 1st, 2023 (Edit) Reply
- Margaret Omer March 1st, 2023 (Edit) . Have fun, Terry. Reply
- Lane Stallings April 26th, 2023(Edit) ♥️ Reply
5. Vietnamese Traditional Medicine
February 24, 2023
It’s dark in the morning. I don’t have internet where I’m sleeping. It’s just dark, a little cool, and humid and still. I’ve come to the office of our hotel where there is internet, and I can now write this post to you. I’m thinking of students at Mary and Kara’s English class who know this topic I want to show you pictures about here. Where I write – beside me is a couch. Suddenly I’m aware of snoring and realize someone or many people are sleeping around me. They are hotel staff who have probably traveled a distance to cook for us. I can’t see them. I have mostly the light of this iPad I’m typing on. I’m in Hoi An, by the South China Sea, which has a new name, East Sea. Lots of places have new names.
But the pictures I want to show you are from Saigon where I was introduced by practitioners to traditional medicine.
Above is our attendant at the FiTo Museum of Traditional Vietnamese medicine. She explains to us that acupuncture was first practiced by the Vietnamese. Someone had discovered the impact of the pressure of stones while walking barefoot across them. Acupressure. The practice was later explored by the Chinese and developed to acupuncture. The young woman guided us through rooms of first monographs describing methods of herbs and dosage for people with different conditions. There is an art form of the mortar and pestle to crush the herbs. We learned the methods of boiling herbs in water and drinking the decoctions. I had read so much about life-saving decoctions of Cambodian people in their travails and deprivation of food.
Our attendant gave us drops of a potion to rub between our palms. We then placed our palms where there was pain and it made my skin tingle.
One room is devoted to illustrations of herbs, stalks, and blossoms used for medicines. Later in our journey around Danang and Hoi An, I see vast green fields of rice and also gardens in the smallest corridors of soil around a house. Here is a garden plot of vegetables and herbs cultivated between large buildings on a crazy, busy urban street.
I’ve never drunk much green tea but our young attendant leaves us with this prescription: drink green tea in the morning, not at night. It gives your body too much energy to drink at night. But in the morning, drink it with honey and cinnamon. Cinnamon has many virtues, she explains.
The room is coming alive where I write. My fingers are sticky on the keys in the humidity. The person has slipped away from the couch and I didn’t see them go. Two staff people come to the hotel desk rubbing their eyes. Someone turns on a light. Across the way, I see the huge sea. I’ll show you.
5 Responses to “Vietnamese Traditional Medicine”
- mimi Beth white February 25th, 2023(Edit) Do you see our comments? When you write I can hear your voice. I will try green tea with honey and cinnamon while you are away. The art work that holds the secrets of the ancient medicines is beautiful. Your writing space feels dark as if you had been transported to the night sky. I am going to yoga now–your class with Rebecca who is a very good teacher. Much love, Mimi Reply
- terryfarish February 25th, 2023 (Edit) Good morning, Mimi. I do see and aam so grateful to imagine you writing to me. I don’t feel alone. Our pace has been fast as we move north. But today we leave a little later so I can write to you an tell you I. Miss you and hope you have peace today. Terry Reply
- Maren C. TirabassiFebruary 25th, 2023(Edit) Wow. Today I buy honey. Tomorrow I put it in green tea. I’m sure she does not mean my decaf version, but still. Thank you for this wonderful post and the vividness of your writing place. I’ve often shared space with people I called “sleeping” but that was usually me being judgmental-in-metaphor! See, you have even made me a little repentant. Reply
- judith dickerman-nelson February 28th, 2023 (Edit) I must begin to drink more green tea! Thank you for your lovely post.
6. Man Quang School
February 25, 2023
We travel on Highway I. There are baby rice fields with scare crows blowing. Sometimes they are shirts with the arms wide on sticks. Sometimes the shirts or bags are shredded and the scarecrows ripple with streamers. Le Ly tells us a story of a time of filming “Heaven and Earth” when Oliver Stone met Le Ly’s mom who Le Ly calls MamaDu in her book. Oliver asked MamaDu, what is your happiness? She said, she was happy when she worked in the rice fields. She liked being with the earth and the snakes and all the living things.
One day we come to the home village of Le Ly’s mom. It’s not far off the highway from Danang. I think it’s Saturday which means you, my own daughter, are finishing up work on Friday night. I think. In my group, we are always asking each other, what day is this?
We walk through this village. We are learning the flora and birds. We learn that people often plant beetle nut in the the front of the house and banana trees in the back garden. They grow morning glories, okra, sweet potatoes. We are a week into the journey and I’m not sleeping and by this morning have been bleary eyed with sleeplessness and easy tears and missing my family and the pace of seeing so many things I needed to be with for a while, and now sorrow in this village of good people working in the gardens as we Americans pass through. Le Ly had told us why we’ve come to this village. She had told us so much. I knew we were coming to a memorial. And then we did. We’ve come to the upraised tombs of children near their school called Man Quang School. Then we see their tombstones. 45 children were killed in a bomb raid during the American war. We became very quiet. Le Ly led us in burning incense and placing the sticks on the memorial and on the stones.
It feels right to stay silent as we are in this space with the children.
5 Responses to “Man Quang School”
- Diane Crilley February 26th, 2023 (Edit) Terry What an experience!! Reply
- mimi Beth white February 26th, 2023 (Edit) In silence with you. Love, Mimi Reply
- Susanna Hargreaves February 26th, 2023 (Edit) I am sure these moments take your breath away. Time makes it all so bittersweet…and the quiet. Reply
- Maren . Tirabassi February 28th, 2023 (Edit) Tenderness surround you as these quick days continue and you gather the memories more lightly, all to be reflected on more deeply in the long days that are coming. Sleep will find you. When I was in Aotearoa Donald would say “greetings from yesterday” so, indeed, as you walk among the tears of 1965, love from us, your people of yesterday. Reply
- judith dickerman-nelson February 28th, 2023 (Edit) I am thinking of you through tears and in silence.
7. A Song
February 28, 2023
So here’s a broad-brush story. It begins with a song. I hear a lot of stories in Vietnam. Some are in song. Le Ly invites us to her family home in Ky La where she’s prepared a feast. Not only that but she invites two neighbors over to meet us and one woman sings us a song. She is in her 80s and is one of those we meet who remember the American war. Le Ly said her song is famous in the neighborhood as a local tribute to the children from Man Quang School who died in a B52 bombing and whose graves we’ve just come from.
We also hear a tragic tale of another neighbor. When she was 13, she worked for the Viet Cong, passing on information to support their troop movements. She was imprisoned by the southern army, part of the time in a tiger cage, which is just like what it sounds like and held four people. But she said she didn’t feel alone. She felt embraced by her family and her country.
The country proudly welcomes us to the DMZ at the 17th parallel that had divided the country into two nations after the end of French control of Viet Nam.
Then we come to the village of Vinh Moc, not far after we cross the Hien Luong Bridge over Ben Hai River. (I’m trying to learn the names so I’m giving as many as I can to you.) In Vinh Moc, the country invites tourists into a stunning and also terrifying work of architecture, a complex of underground tunnels. In the tunnels, 600 people could sleep, cook, set up a hospital, and have a birthing room for hundreds of babies born here. The military built the tunnels for people to shelter in when the Americans dropped bombs on this area north of the DMZ. The U.S. was attempting to stop the supply lines to the northern army. This is a rattled photo of our no-nonsense young guide, but I’m including it because it shows my own rattled state of mind as we walked and stooped through the complex. This young woman whose grandparents had used the tunnel marched us through it. The rocks and mud underfoot were damp and slippery. “Mind your head. Mind your feet. Mind everything,” she commanded. But I followed her voice. For me it was hard to take a deep breath. But her voice brought us out.
Oh, I’m not such a good traveler. We are visiting many tourist sites. Young women work so hard to paddle boats we glide in. A part of me resists and another part of me is in awe that I can see this place. But then something happens that kind of shifts everything, yeah, even above the bullet holes in the buildings in Hue and the abandoned Huey chopper and C-130 we saw at Khe Sanh.
What we see now is a cave. Here’s the cave song. We travel to a cave at Phong Nha. I’m seeing commerce of all kinds. Tourism is a huge source of pride and success and it’s just coming back since Covid. A boy paddles our river boat up the river to the entrance of the caves. He works with his mom. We motor in and once in the cave, she cuts the motor. It’s silent in there and they pull long paddles through the water. His mom is at the bow of the boat, the boy at the stern. Le Ly gets their story and tells us the the mother and boy are allowed to operate this boat one day a week for the tourists, and other days they farm. She has five children and they are almost making it and hope for more days on the river when more tourists come.
Okay, and then I begin to look up and realize we’ve entered a cathedral, a vast natural-born cathedral formed over eons. We are in a place I learn from Lonely Planet that was formed 400 million years ago. It is so fiercely grand and holds the recent past as only a part. Another song the river tells. Just imagine.
4 Responses to “Letters to My Daughter: A Song”
- Rene’ Johnson March 1st, 2023(Edit) Terry, I am in absolute awe by what you are seeing, feeling, experiencing. Less than a year ago I saw that same Huey and C-130, but there the similarities of our trips end. I cannot wait o hear more about this extraordinary adventure you’re on! Reply
- mimi March 3rd, 2023 (Edit) Terry thank you for these beautiful messages. They hold more life than I can imagine–yours as a young woman coming back on a journey I am in awe of
The names of rivers and trying to learn them is such a loving way of knowing where you are and where you have been and where the people of Viet Nam travel every day. Thank you for taking the time to write these letters. You are the best traveler. Sleep will come. Sending much love, Mimi Reply
- Maren C. Tirabassi March 3rd, 2023 (Edit) There is a secondary sacredness for us readers in your naming the names, telling the stories, identifying what was in newspapers when I was a teen, a college student.
8. A Soldier and a Child
March 3, 2023
It wasn’t until I found my way down Trang Thi Steet in Hanoi and then to Hai Ba Trung that I found JD Salinger. He was there in translation in Vietnamese on a street with a sign that read Book Street. I was looking for a bookstore, but that’s another story. First I have to tell this one. I wanted to set this story up by referencing another, but I couldn’t remember it until I found it here. It was “For Esme — With Love and Squalor,” a brilliant story from Salinger’s Nine Stories, about a soldier’s chance meeting with a child, and the memory of their encounter was part of his healing from war.
This story I want to tell is a soldier story, too. I’m traveling with a small group in the country. Three of the men are veterans of the U.S. war here. Two of them, Chuck Forsman and Mike Stempe, were in the Information Office at Headquarters, 1st Logistical Command, I Corps in Danang. They were photographers and reporters for the I Corps newspaper doing work that was sometimes picked up by Stars and Stripes and other publications.
Not far from their headquarters was an orphanage run by an order of Vietnamese Catholic sisters, called Thanh Tam. Mike and Chuck used to go to the orphanage on Sundays. “It was about a half mile from our compound,” Mike said. “It was freedom to us. We got all pumped up. ‘Let’s go see the kids.’”
Chuck has been back to Viet Nam four times since he was here as a journalist with I Corps. His book of photography, Lost in Vietnam, presents a collection of photos from his journeys back. The book includes a memory of a small child he has never forgotten. He met her one Sunday at the orphanage in Danang. In the book he writes that when she first came to the orphanage, she didn’t look at him; her eyes were vacant and her body was emaciated. Over the weeks, in hopes of engaging with her, he slipped off his wrist watch that had a twist-able band and she was drawn to it. She touched it. The watch was a small first connection between them and a friendship began.
On this trip, when we got to Danang we all wanted to go with Mike and Chuck to find the orphanage. Could there be a way to trace the children who had been there so many years ago? We found, though, that the orphanage was no longer there. The building was now a retirement home for sisters of the French order. We met Sister Ane Nguyen Thi Tinh of the order that had run the orphanage, and Sr. Ane welcomed us to come in. Inside, we heard a bell sounding. It was a call to the sisters, not to prayer as I thought but to lunch and we met many of the older nuns at their lunch. There, a remarkable thing happened: a sister introduced herself as one of the nuns who worked in the orphanage in 1969 when Mike and Chuck had been in Danang. They talked and exchanged memories of that time. Chuck put down his camera and listened.
After the war, Mike Stempe became a teacher and continued to find satisfaction working with children. He taught in Alaska for many years and as a photojournalist created a book of photographs about Alaska.
This trip we’re all on will be Chuck’s fifth trip to the country. He and Mike have been documenting our journey at every step as if they are seeing the country for the first time.
6 Responses to “A Soldier and a Child”
- miriam white March 3rd, 2023 (Edit) Dear Terry, what a miracle to get close to a former lived experience in Viet Nam. I love seeing so many faces. What a story of courage and perseverance. I had not read the words, For Esme with Love and Squalor in decades. I once owned that book, years ago had read that story and when I read it here I felt a shiver go through me. The past showed up and quickly vanished. I cant wait to see what tomorrow brings. Much love to you, Mimi Reply
- Maren C. Tirabassi March 3rd, 2023 (Edit) Every time is the first time. Every time contains the possibility of eyes shining at the sight of a twisting watch. Reply
- Margaret O March 10th, 2023(Edit) Have followed your letters to your daughter. Wow, a fascinating journey! Reply
- Pat March 23rd, 2023(Edit) Hi Terry. I finished rereading all this pieces together while in Hawaii. What an extraordinary picture of your experience back in Vietnam. Thank you for inviting us to join you. The caves!! I’d never heard of the existence of the caves. Now I want to know more. Reply
9. Global Village Helps Children and Grandchildren of the American war in Viêt Nam
April 13, 2023
Le Ly Hayslip welcomed our group to make this Heaven and Earth Pilgrimage with her. In Viêt Nam she showed us the wealth, the poverty, and the extreme beauty of the country. We saw entrepreneurs everywhere including the small islands of the Mekong Delta. She brought us home to meet her family, and hear memories of her Central region neighbors in what was Ky La. We saw the country’s cultures preserved in the astounding Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, the vast cityscapes of high rises in the north of the country, and Halong Bay which still haunts me and when I boarded a boat on the bay, I felt something as cliched and disarming as love.
But a most memorable part of the pilgrimage has been the opportunity to see the humanitarian work of the Global Village Foundation founded by Le Ly in 2020. I was astounded by the reach of Le Ly’s work which she began even before the books, the movie, and the documentaries.
In 1993 while Le Ly was with East Meets West, the first Foundation she established, she founded Village of Hope. Village of Hope serves orphaned and hearing-impaired children in Danang. Since the founding, over 800 children have grown up there. Our group visited the Village of Hope, met many children, and also adults for whom the Village was their family. They have gone on to higher education, and have children of their own.
Groups of dancers, including dancers who were hearing-impaired students, performed for Le Ly in thanks for her work and the work of others in the Global Village Foundation.
We also visited two orphanages. Global Village Foundation delivered food supplies and cash to Mái Ấm Mây Ngàn Orphanage in Tay Ninh, a home for children of all ages. Here’s my fellow traveler, Vietnam veteran, and life-long teacher, Mike Stempe, who dressed as a clown to entertain the children.
Some at Peace Village are students born with disabilities that resulted from Agent Orange. I learned more about the extent of the on-going damage caused by Agent Orange in the country. The United States Institute for Peace reports: “The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that three million Vietnamese have been affected by dioxin [the toxic chemical in Agent Orange], including at least 150,000 children born after the war with serious birth defects.” They also report that “there is no timeline [across generations] for when the health effects of Agent Orange stop.”
The documentary “From War to Peace and Beyond” tells the full story of Le Ly’s humanitarian work in her motherland. We on the 2023 pilgrimage had small, but life-changing, experiences in our visits with children and adults whose lives she has saved.
Next: Just two more Letters to My Daughter, Come With Me to Halong Bay and Travel Tips for the Clueless (Such As Me).
April 24, 2023
So here’s a confession. What I thought I knew about Việt Nam mostly fell by the wayside. What I’m saying is, the trip was humbling.
Two weeks in the country and now another several weeks since I came back, I’m still recognizing new ways to see it, and how I can’t see it anymore the way I ever told you about it. Even the words I see differently. I spent the morning adding the Vietnamese language to my MAC keyboard ‘input menu’ so that I can at least add the diacritical marks to the letters. Vietnamese is spoken in tones and the diacritics tell the reader what the words mean. The marks are integral to the letter. They are the letters. The marks help me come into a country in a way I had no room in myself to do in 1970.
Expect time to have its way. So many things got in my way in writing these “Letters” to you about returning to Việt Nam. You were with me all the way. We texted from all the airports and you told me what time it was in some part of the world. I was upside down with time. When I got back, I couldn’t sleep at any time. Also, I’d gotten sick in a minor way in Hanoi, and that lingered. Then my brilliant editor for a forthcoming novel showed me a vision for fixing some things, and I leaped from Việt Nam back into the novel with huge excitement to rewrite. Now I’m letting the characters rest, so I can write to you way past the time I wanted to write this letter.
The country might change you. For one, it entices you to shop. Give in to it. At least in small ways. One day, in some time, I texted you,
What’s your favorite color? knowing that it changes.
You were shocked. Are you shopping? I’ve never seen you shop.
Just tell me your favorite color.
Yes, I went shopping for blue silk on Hàng Gai Street (Silk Street) in Hanoi.
If you get something that needs an antibiotic to heal, you can do this in Việt Nam. I did. Take a fellow traveler with you to a street pharmacy. Travel to the pharmacy at night for the drama of the night, and with the fellow traveler and the pharmacist google your affliction and she’ll know right away. She’ll pick the pills from the wall of drugs, write on the box “Morning: 1 after/Evening: 1 eating”, and charge not much more than a US dollar for a 10-day supply. This practice is frowned on by the National Institute of Health and the World Health Organization because of the danger of building resistance to antibiotics. When I came home I read about other dangers of pharmacies internationally on the Washington Post podcast, “By the Way.” The story is called, “Everything You Need to Know about Foreign Pharmacies” by Andrea Sachs.
There are cafes along the highways, there are cafes down side roads, there are cafes in villages. Sometimes beside the cafes there are trees strung with hammocks. I was curious about the hammocks and found that they were for people to take a nap at a point in the day when you need to stretch out, shut your eyes. Along the highway, I saw workmen in the hammocks and imagined them having a nap between lunch and getting back to the job. I think the hammocks are a brilliant idea and Americans should add hammocks to their restaurants.
Always travel with Le Ly. One day we were in Huế. We saw what remains of the former Imperial City and walked along the moat and the thick stone walls around the city. We saw the Sông Hương that empties into a lagoon farther on. We walked through dense intersections of city streets toward our van, passing cafés and trinket shops and manikins in t-shirts that say Huế and that bright gold national star. Le Ly worried about our hunger and spotted a street-side café next to the t-shirts. No one was eating at the small tables. She talked briefly to the owner. She seemed to extract promises from him about feeding this small band of Americans. Le Ly had run a restaurant of her own. She knew how to do that. In Da Nang during the war, she ran a black market business to feed and house her baby and her mother. She makes things happen. When the staff at the restaurant was not quick enough to set up for us, she moved tables. Brought us cups and water. Then she ordered for us. Platters of food came which we ate communally. And there is where I got the best pumpkin soup of all the pumpkin soups I ate the length of the country. Always travel with Le Ly.
Looking at the photo above and the garden where we ate under a canopy of trees, I wonder if this was the same place I was years ago when I was called to Saigon from my unit.
I found out that the blue silk scarf I got you on Silk Street in Hanoi near my hotel called The Silk Path Hotel, may not be silk. I heard from my friend that she knows of the place in Hanoi where the scarves are silk. I’ll get back to you on this.
Get a roller bag. Forget about being carefree with a bag slung over your shoulder. It nearly killed me those hours going through security at Nội Bài Airport. Get a suitcase that rolls.
I’ll get you a true silk scarf. I’ll go back. Even though I know you like the one you’ve got, and it is a beautiful blue. I’ll get a roller bag as small as they come, so I can still heft it into the overhead. I’ll just keep texting you. Maybe it’s you who’ll go and you’ll text me. If you do go to Việt Nam, do something for me. Wander around the grounds of Thich Nhat Hanh’s pagoda. You can sit at the outer gate and have some sweet Vietnamese coffee and read the book you love that day.
The monks will chant for you.
10. Ha Long Bay
Hạ Long Bay becomes a looming character to me in my story of Việt Nam. I have never been to Hạ Long Bay until this day in March on this second journey. I saw a landscape extraordinary to me. There were karst towers and inside them were caves. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site of 1600 islands and islets “rising from the sea, limestone pillars unaffected by human presence” the UNESCO site writes in its description. I boarded a riverboat with my group on Hạ Long Bay and as I did, I simply wanted to take in that such a boat as this exists and that the boat was on this otherworldly body of water with towers around us. I wanted at that moment to just write a story from the well of emotions the place brought up in me. So I began to write in the small green notebook I’d written in throughout the days. Here are a few lines. We passed like a ghost ship among limestone islands shaped by regressions and transgressions of the sea. I knew a soldier who never saw Ha Long Bay. He never knew Việt Nam contained a seascape sculpted by nature so beautiful, so other-worldly, and the very air whispered, I love you. There is more, there is so much more.