A Soldier Returns on a Cruise to Vietnam, as a Tourist

Vietnam soldier Alan Buckelew
Vietnam soldier Alan Buckelew

Until a few years ago if someone had asked me to make a bucket list of countries to visit, Vietnam would have been at or near the bottom. I guess you could say, “been there, done that.”  I served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from June 1969 until June 1970.  I was part of a recon platoon called Fox Force.  We operated in the Central Highlands of Vietnam – in the mountains and jungles of that area.  Unlike any unit I’m aware of, we wore red scarves – always – even on combat missions.  We had a well-earned reputation, and our red scarves clearly set us apart from other soldiers in our division.  We were told the enemy had a $10,000 bounty on each of us.  It didn’t really matter because in the year I was part of Fox, the enemy never killed a single member of our team.  We were in combat frequently but were never ambushed or surprised.  If we were a baseball team, we would have ended our season with all wins and no losses, and with most games pitched as no hitters.  I’m sure history books will say the U.S. lost that war, but we were ahead when I left.

Like a lot of Vietnam veterans, I don’t talk much about my experience “over there.”  I have been blessed with the ability to compartmentalize my combat experiences.  They are like a box of Christmas ornaments up in the attic; I still have them, but they don’t get in the way of daily life.  Vietnam veterans were, for the most part, not welcomed home and often quite the opposite, so compartmentalization was a useful way to avoid unwelcome confrontation.

In 2000 my old unit, Fox, held a reunion, and has every year since.  The Fox team comes from every walk of life in America, making us quite an odd collection of souls, but we share a common bond that only other combat veterans can appreciate.  We wear our red scarves when we are together, but also wear red wrist bands, specially inscribed, when we are not together.  I’m proud to say my youngest daughter had the inspiration for the red wrist bands.  Sadly, about 25 percent of the team has passed away since our first meeting – all from Agent Orange-related cancers.

In the last few years, I’ve wanted to return to Vietnam.  I’m not completely sure why, but it just felt like it was time for me to complete the journey that began almost 40 years ago.  Being blessed in my occupation, I booked an Asian cruise that sailed in December 2009.  Unfortunately due to timing, cost and other personal issues, none of my Fox Force teammates could join me and my family on the cruise vacation. The Asian cruise began in Shanghai and ended in Bangkok – truly a fantastic way to visit the highlights of Asia. The cruise vacation had two stops in Vietnam: Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City.  I was excited to return to Vietnam, but also to share all of Asia with my family who had never traveled to this part of the world.

I was excited about our arrival in Da Nang, our first Vietnamese port of call.  I awoke early to watch as the ship berthed.  The port is not near the city, so all I could see was a small harbor and the surrounding countryside, which was at once familiar, but not the Vietnam I had experienced.  Da Nang is a coastal city northeast of where I served.  There is no jungle there, which is just as well, since no one would want to visit the area where I served; it is too remote and densely vegetated.

After 40 years I found Vietnam, in many ways, much the way I had left it.  I was surprised so little had changed, but my heart was gladdened to see that the entrepreneurial spirit was still very much alive, with little businesses flourishing everywhere.  The people I met were glad to meet Americans, and were wonderful and friendly – something we never dared to find out as soldiers due to the threat of IEDs back then. The food was fantastic, the best we found in all of Asia.  This too was a surprise as all I ate when in-country 40 years ago were C-rations.

We had a wonderful guide who showed us the sights of Da Nang and Hoi An.  Vietnam is a poor country; nevertheless, the people were generous and wonderful hosts.  New infrastructure is being added everywhere, so it would appear that their future is a bright one.

I really hadn’t thought about how I would react to my return to Vietnam.  However, I had expected a flood of memories to overtake me.  But that didn’t happen.  Faces did come to mind, but they weren’t of the young men with whom I had fought.  Rather, they were their current portraits.  I wished all the Fox team could be with me, completing this long journey we had all begun so long ago.

The next day was a sea day and thankfully so.  I hadn’t really thought about how I would react after returning to Vietnam, but I would have never expected the result I was experiencing.  Fortunately my Princess cruise provided plenty for everyone to do all day long, making it easy for me to keep to myself.  I didn’t experience an epiphany or a cathartic episode, like the ones usually seen in movies, instead, .  I was just emotionally drained the whole day.

Upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, (formerly Saigon) I was fine and enjoyed a day of touring the old capital of South Vietnam.  I had been there once, but my memory of that time was pretty cloudy.  It’s an exciting city that has a very vibrant texture; my whole family thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Vietnam’s southern center.  I was just another tourist on that day, and that felt wonderful.  If I had any doubts or demons about Vietnam, they were back in the attic.

I’m glad I went back, but more so because I took a cruise to Asia rather than a solitary visit to Vietnam.  It was great to be back for a few days, but it was better to see the rest of Asia and to be able to return to the familiarity of our cruise ship each evening.  I’m a little biased, but I can’t think of a better way to visit all of Asia, and for Vietnam veterans, a better way to tie-off the need to revisit the place where so many gave so much.

I still look forward to returning to the area where I served, but only if accompanied by some of my old Fox Force teammates.