My Dad, our friend Ron, and I are in the remote Hà Giang province, a spectacularly rugged region of this communist country that was only recently opened to foreigners. You’re still required to carry a special permit and be accompanied by a guide here, and though we did actually hire a local one, he’s in his van somewhere playing video games on his phone while we explore the mountains on bikes.
We’d already gotten in trouble earlier in the trip, in central Vietnam, when I’d inadvertently pointed my camera at a military base. Officers had stormed out, there was yelling and threats of expulsion. Dad, who wasn’t the biggest fan of the Vietnamese military, hadn’t been too happy. “No one gives a #@$! about your base,” he muttered as we rode away. How would he react now, I wondered, as a second uniformed man with a severe face came out of a roadside building to join his compatriot?
This was my first time in Vietnam, but Dad was here in 1967 as a U.S. Marine advisor to a battalion of 200 South Vietnamese soldiers. Though the combat had been bloody, he’d come to love the cheerful, laughing people here that some call the Italians of Southeast Asia. Spending time with them in villages and jungle camps opened his mind to different ways of living, eating, and viewing the world. Combined with the horrors of a war he volunteered for, it transformed him from a conservative military man into a free-thinker who spent the 1970s growing his hair long and exploring the counterculture (where he met a kindred spirit in Ron).
Living outside in the Vietnamese jungle for a year also cemented his love of the outdoors, and when he returned to the states he regularly spent weeks backpacking solo in the mountains of Montana. In a funny way, you could say Vietnam liberated Dad from his narrow middle-class American worldview.
Now we’re here because Dad, 67 and graying, was taking stock of his life and wanted to come back to the land of his most intense year, to see what happened to the country he’d left behind and the people he’d learned to love.
Things were different now though. Our first night here, in a hotel room in the muggy, dense chaos of Hanoi, he said, “It was funny seeing all those guys in the north Vietnamese uniforms. We used to shoot at those.”
I exchanged glances with my Dad’s buddy Ron, a boisterous New Yorker who’s like an uncle to me. “I brought some anti-psychotic pills,” he said, “just in case you freak out.” Then he broke into his incredible honking laugh that has been known to momentarily silence all conversation in restaurants.
In a funny way, you could say Vietnam liberated Dad from his narrow middle-class American worldview.
We spent our first few days spinning effortlessly along the flat, paved roads around the demilitarized zone, which waist-belts the country’s midsection where Dad fought.
“Now this is the way to see a country,” Dad said as we first started riding. He kept saying how familiar everything was, though the dirt trails between villages were now roads. Rice paddies stretched into an infinity of green, where water buffalos wandered and men in conical hats herded ducks along waterways.
“I’m pretty sure that guy is actually herding ducks,” I said to Dad.
There was the constant ringing of “hellos!” from villages and schoolyards and pool halls. There are 85 million people in Vietnam, which is approximately the size of California, and I swear they were all in those teeming villages and roads—walking, bicycling, riding scooters. We sent gaggles of schoolgirls into riots of laughter with a simple returned “hello!” As we moved to the coast on undulating, wind-battered roads with more bikes than cars, there are always more villages, always more people to wave and greet us in a “hello!” bombardment.
“Geez, I feel like I’m in a parade,” Dad said.
“You know I looked up the definition of ‘hello’ in Vietnamese this morning,” Ron said.
There was a pause as Dad and I exchanged a knowing glance.
“It means ‘@%$# you, you Yankee bastard!”
It was at lunch in a little open-air, roadside cafe—an impotent refrigerator displaying warm Coca-Colas; barefoot kids watching cartoons in a concrete-walled back room—when our Vietnamese guide, Joe, who had set the video games aside and was riding with us that day, told us that his father was a fighter pilot for the North during the war. It took a few minutes for this to sink in. Our fathers had been on opposing sides of a war. Now we were drinking warm sodas and biking together through the very areas they’d fought in.
In the days ahead, we pedaled along the Ho Chi Minh trail—once a secret communist military route during the war; now a national highway that virtually no one uses, at least not in cars. As we followed its roller coaster corridor through the jungle, it felt more like a bike path peppered with kids, chickens, goats, and the occasional water buffalo to dodge. Later, we found an old French railway corridor turned dirt path that tunneled and carved through a limestone gorge along a ribbon of luminescent emerald water. We railed singletrack across rickety stick-bridges over jungly rivers. Everywhere, even in the jungle, were running, waving, laughing children calling, “Hello! Hello!”
“I love the good cheer of everyone here,” I said.
“And you know they were even like that during the war,” Dad said. “When they were getting shot at they would make jokes about how close the bullets had come.”
We’ve been taking adventure trips to the mountains every year since I was a kid, often with Ron joining us, and those long drives through the night from Minneapolis to Montana were one of the only times Dad would tell stories from Vietnam. You could see the war’s effects in his lifelong toughness and uncomplaining endurance, but I never really understood what he went through in the war. Now, back in Vietnam, the stories poured out. He talked about the bombs that landed at his feet but miraculously didn’t explode. About the bloody booby traps he narrowly avoided. About gunfights in nighttime jungle. About the good friends that didn’t survive. From these stories I learned that it’s a miracle Dad—and me—are here at all.
And it’s not just us. As we rode through this country of a million smiles, where millions of Vietnamese died, I realized that the people in this bursting-at-the-seams country are monuments—living, hello!-shouting monuments—to the resilience of humanity.
We ended our trip muscling up and streaking down the steep mountain roads in the far north, in remote Ha Giang, hard against the border with China. None of us had been there before, but we’d heard about this place, where the mountains rise like spears and the people’s clothes are cut from rainbows. This is the land of the Hmong, the long-persecuted and fiercely independent people who fought for the Americans in the war and who’ve since found refuge in the high mountains where no one else can survive. We heard their songs carry from the mountainsides and watched them plant crops on steep slopes, coaxing life from stone.
Late one afternoon near the end of the trip, after a day of riding dirt and paved roads clinging to cloudforest-clad mountains and bombing an impossibly long downhill where I somewhat maniacally passed a motor scooter on a turn, Dad and I climbed together up a quiet forest road. This trip had opened my eyes to his own resilience and warrior past, but also to how this place and its people had changed him into something different—into the compassionate, worldly man I knew as my father.
I never really understood what he went through in the war. Now, back in Vietnam, the stories poured out.
For Dad it was a chance to see that the Vietnamese people he loved, that he worried he’d abandoned to destruction, had survived the war. And this time he’d gotten to experience and share it with his son.
We’d been quiet for a while when Dad said, “Who would have imagined the two of us riding in Vietnam in 2012?”
Then we reached that high-mountain checkpoint where the military officer approached us. I braced for confrontation as he barked something we couldn’t understand. He didn’t speak English, but I noticed him eyeing our bikes. His face broke into a smile as he pointed at my bike then back to himself. That’s when it hit me—he doesn’t want to arrest us, he wants to try our bikes! Soon he and the other officer were spinning along the road flashing huge grins like giddy schoolkids. Afterward, the younger one even wanted to take pictures with us, arm in arm.
The officer had no idea the significance of that photo, he and I and my Dad, who only a few decades earlier was shooting at anyone wearing the same uniform. He was laughing as he waved goodbye to us. Dad laughed, too. Ron let out a honk for good measure.
No one was shooting anymore. We were just making friends and riding bikes, thrilled to be alive in the mountains of Vietnam.
For Dad it was a chance to see that the Vietnamese people he loved, that he worried he’d abandoned to destruction, had survived the war.