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 is 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, (I think the Son 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.