Vietnam and a Reason to Travel

Dong Hoi city is just north of what was once the DMZ, which hacked the country like a watermelon into Capitalist and Communist halves during the Vietnam War. This area was where much of the fighting took place, and Dong Hoi itself was almost entirely obliterated by American bombs.

We stayed 4 nights here with a beautiful local family who run two small, effortlessly hospitable hotels. Sy, the patriarch, was a child during the war. As a 6 year old, he remembers Communist soldiers billeting in his village, en route to infiltrate the South via the Ho Chi Minh trail. They would occasionally let him play with their rifles, and he would take aim at scrawny rats with an AK47. This was in more innocent times, before the bombs dropped.

The Communist soldiers, just like the ones in the history books, built schools, helped irrigate the land, and protected the villagers from tigers who occasionally savaged an errant water buffalo before disappearing back into the jungle (guerrilla tactics soon used with equal success by the North Vietnamese).

When the war intensified, Sy had to move villages many times to escape death falling from the skies. Years later, he himself would join the Communist Party as a young, zealous graduate with a head full of ideas and a rudimentary grasp of Russian. More years passed, and he would quit in protest at the shameless greed and nepotism. Russian lessons turned into English as he swore to rely on himself from here on in.

He tells me all this as we ride out to see the celebrated caves of Phong Nha National Park. I ask him about society today and he says he despises police the most. "Criminals. Worse than criminals". From the back seat my daughter Tao, who has been listening carefully and interrupting continuously (does napalm hurt?) interjects again: "But police and criminals are opposites!" I think you've been watching Vietnam TV, Sy smiles back.

In 2010, a quiet American booked in to stay at Sy's hotel for two weeks. Over Vietnamese coffee as thick as an oil slick, Sy learned he was ex-CIA and responsible for photographing the aerial damage over Dong Hoi during the carpet-bombing raids. From thousands of metres up, images recalled the grainy, crater-strewn pictures sent back from the lunar landings - No signs of life. The American now returned 40 years later to see the view from the ground.

The two men quickly become firm friends. Their children meet and become Facebook friends. Sy's daughter has a scholarship at a prestigious Japanese university. His son, 9 year old Bun, spends his free time playing the card game Uno rather than with live-ammo assault rifles.

Bun knocks on our door, cards in hand, at about 9pm one night and is hard to get rid of - a tirelessly charming irritant who speaks a bizarre dialect of English gleaned entirely from American cartoons, movies, and YouTube videos. A winning Uno hand he declares "hardcore wicked" and we quickly introduce a "pick up 3 cards if you curse" rule to stem the repeated use of his favourite phrase: "you son of a bitch."

Days like these are really the only reason I travel, and the only reason I pretend to justify forcing Tao onto palpably unsafe long-distance buses again and again, with the occasional upgrade to a decrepit train carriage hit hard by ongoing conflict between ants and bugs (and the occasional heavy artillery attack of a spider). I get very very tired of traveling, but I seem to never get tired of stories. I hope she never does either.