A stooped, wrinkled Vietnamese woman stares at me with a pleading look, clutching a faded photograph in her frail hand. A prim and proud American soldier beams from the cracked print. “Can you help me find him?” she begs. My heart breaks. We’ve met just moments before, yet already I feel like I have a window into her soul.
I’m curious but filled with trepidation. Having been in Vietnam for only a few days, I’m still trying to rectify reality with images of war from my childhood.
My mind flashes back to 1978—five years after the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam. I’m a sheltered eight-year-old, sitting wide-eyed in a dark movie theater, watching The Deer Hunter. I had no idea what the movie was about before it started. It is chaotic and terrifying.
The sounds of war ring in my ears. Helicopters spray napalm on a Vietnamese jungle, exploding it into a raging inferno, as villagers scatter, some ablaze. I shudder at the cries of terror. The scene flashes to a sweaty, crazed-looking Christopher Walken jamming a revolver into his temple, forced by his angry Vietnamese captors to play Russian roulette. Later, American soldiers frantically claw their way through a steamy jungle river, trying to stay out of sight, as bullets whizz overhead.
The horrifying scenes burn themselves into my memory and haunt me for decades.
Twenty-four years later, I venture to Vietnam. By this time, I’m 31—well educated, well traveled, and accomplished. I’ve taken a year off work to roam the world with my husband, and Vietnam is the eighth country on our backpacking route. I’ve been cruising on the back of my guide’s motorbike for two days when he says there’s someone he wants me to meet.
We approach a remote outcropping of plywood houses around midday, just as the hot, humid air starts to sap my energy, draping me in a cloak of lethargy. Jungle shrubbery grows in chaotic tangles, conjuring up images of camouflaged troops lying in ambush. Chickens dart across dirty yards. Barefoot children stare at me in curious wonder. A primitive house stands two feet up on stilts, just a faint hint of paint still clinging to its sides.
Then I meet the woman.
“Nguyen twang phao pho ching,” tumbles from her lips. She scribbles a couple of names on a scrap of paper.
“She wants to know if you can help her get in touch with this American soldier,” my guide explains, pointing to the paper.
I look at the photograph. “I’d love to help. How does she know him?” I ask.
“She met him during the war. They were good friends. She wants to know how he’s doing,” my guide says.
“Wow. She’s held onto his photo all this time?” I ask. It’s been 30 years of hard living, and this dear little lady still aches to know what happened to her friend. My mind conjures up a passionate, forbidden affair—him, a scared and lonely serviceman; her, a beautiful young girl, perhaps discovering love for the first time; between the two, a precious human connection that transcends the conflicts of war.
“I’ll look him up when we’re back in the States. There must be a directory of veterans.”
My guide tells the woman what I said. As she listens, her eyes light up and she starts nodding her head excitedly.
He turns back to me. “I don’t meet many Americans. You seem nice and trustworthy, and I thought you’d want to help. That’s why I asked you,” he said.
I’m touched. “Of course I will.”
With that, we smile, wave and say goodbyes in our strange tongues. The silent language of gestures communicates a promise I vow to keep.
I think about this for the rest of the year. When I return to the States, I post a want ad on a Vietnam veterans forum: “I was traveling in Vietnam in March 2002 and met a woman who had known a Sargent Donald Wilkinson during the Vietnam War. Her name is Nguyen Thi Hao (I think). She said she was good friends with Donald during the war and would like to get in touch with him.”
No one answers. The mystery lingers. What happened to Sargent Wilkinson? Was he gunned down in a leech-ridden swamp? Or did he return home from war? Did he marry? Have kids? Did he ever pause in thought, fondly recalling his sweet Vietnamese girlfriend?
Twelve years later, this woman lingers in my mind, putting a human face on Vietnam. She helped me look past the war and see a beautiful country with real people leading real lives and sharing real pain and real joy.
Travel helps us see that people are people the world over, craving human connection. Like a soldier and a lover, or an American traveler and an old Vietnamese woman—our lives intertwine one interaction at a time.