One of the things that convinced me to be part of the tour groups was the worldwide presence and respect that Chuck Searcy enjoyed as a former Army vet who served in Vietnam and had dedicated his life to helping the people of Vietnam in so many ways. Chuck is a co-founder of Project RENEW, which carries out unexploded ordnance removal in Vietnam. “Why have the Vietnamese been so welcoming to Americans?” he asks. “It is a remarkable trait. They are so forgiving. They don’t dwell on the past. They look at today and tomorrow. Foreigners in general can learn a lot from the Vietnamese outlook on life, forgiveness, and reconciliation.”
I had looked at other “battlefield”-type tours before and had absolutely no interest in that kind of itinerary. I know several Vietnam vets who are still fighting the war in their heads and still feel that it was a “Just Cause” that we could have won if politicians did not sell them out at the time. Having said this, on the 2018 tour, I did bring with me two conservative-leaning combat vets who signed up for the trip early on and then looked at the roster of the antiwar folks who would be part of the tour group. They called me and said they changed their minds and wanted to get their money back as they did not share the same values as the people they would be traveling with. I convinced them to view the trip as a learning experience and to keep an open mind. To make a long story short they felt it was a trip of a lifetime and have shared their tour experiences with thousands of veterans, as well as high school and college students in an educational program we have been running for the last 10 years in Northeast Wisconsin called “Reflections of Vietnam.”
It’s hard to put into words the most memorable parts of the tour for me as there were so many. If I were to make a list it would go like this: the compellingly interesting people who led the tour and the folks from all walks of life who were part of it; our heartfelt, moving (sometimes to tears) interactions with the military men and women who fought for North Vietnam during the war; the children we met at orphanages and hospitals (many impacted by Agent Orange residuals); the various national and local government officials we met starting in Hanoi with a visit to the U.S. Ambassador’s Office and going all the way south to Ho Chi Minh City; the absolutely beautiful scenery that is Vietnam, and, last but not least, the fantastic food and accommodations we enjoyed.
I met people on the tours whom I had only seen in PBS documentaries and read about in magazines and newspapers, as well as ordinary vets like me, people who were active in the draft resistance, writers, reporters and even folks who read about the tour and were curious about the country. The tour was exquisitely well planned and allowed all of us to get to know one another on an informal basis. I made lifelong friends that I keep contact with and have enjoyed seeing at VFP events the last few years.
We also had the priceless opportunity to interact with former NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and Viet Cong (NLF National Liberation Front) high-ranking officers. In our initial joint meeting in Hanoi, I asked, “What is the level of animosity and hard feelings that the Vietnamese people harbor towards Americans for what we did during the war?” After the translator finished my question to the officers, I saw them smile and shake their heads. They told me that almost every American veteran who comes to Vietnam asks the same question and that this was hard for them to understand. They went on to say that the war happened over 50 years ago, it is in the past, and it is not in their culture to hold grudges and seek revenge. As part of our tour, we visited the Vietnamese “Arlington Cemetery” where thousands of soldiers are buried. What struck me about this place was how similar it was to our Vietnam Memorial Wall and what a waste of lives both sides endured because of the war.
Another highlight of the tour was the opportunity to meet the children in orphanages and hospitals that we visited. The orphanages are run by Buddhist nuns who are some of the kindest, most compassionate women you will ever meet. We were given ample time to interact and experience playing with these dear children who I think enjoyed our visit as much as we did. The hospitals we visited in Ho Chi Minh City were another story. Here we saw the impact Agent Orange has had on the second and third generation of the Vietnamese population. I had some concerns how I would react to seeing some of these children, but the nurses made it easy for us to get comfortable with the kids and soon we were able to develop a great rapport with them while we were there.
We were able to meet with several national and local government officials on our trip south from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. At these meetings, I was impressed with their passion for peace in Viet Nam and their optimism for the future of the country. They experienced occupation and foreign interventions from the Japanese during WWII, the French in the late ’40s and early ’50s, followed of course by the United States in the ’60s and ’70s. Very few countries know the horrors of war quite like they do. However, rather than spending a huge percentage of their national treasure on military equipment, they have focused most of their attention on building the infrastructure and social programs for the good of all their people. I witnessed this optimism and passion in almost everyone I met on my tours.
The scenery in Vietnam is breathtaking and very diverse. From the Central Highlands to the Mekong Delta to the beautiful ocean resort cities, the landscape is always changing. The two veterans I brought with me from Wisconsin could not get over how beautiful the country was and how much it had changed since they had been there during the war. They have become the biggest Vietnam tour promoters in the area and are urging other vets to come to Vietnam.
I have traveled much of the world and sampled many different cuisines but have never enjoyed any meals as much as I did in Vietnam. We dined on unusual dishes that were prepared and served in a way that made us feel like we were in a five-star restaurant. It seemed as though we were eating all the time there but most of us came back actually having lost weight because the food was so healthy and nutritious.
In summary, this truly was indeed a trip of a lifetime and a game changer for me. I have used so much of the knowledge gained in the Reflections of Vietnam Program that is sponsored by VVA (Vietnam Veterans of America) Chapter 351. I know I am a better person for having participated in these experiences and best of all made some new friends who I know I will keep in touch with for the rest of my life.
From 2012 through 2019, Chapter 160 of Veterans For Peace hosted a yearly two-week insider tour of Viet Nam, a former war-torn country that is now a nation of peace and beauty. These tours are truly memorable, and the second experience of a lifetime for Viet Nam veterans. After a three-year hiatus forced by COVID, they are ready to roll again with the 2023 Vietnam Peace Tour October 14-29.
For more information about how to participate, visit vfp160.org/tours.
John Koehler served in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 1972 in the Marine Detachment aboard the USS Ticonderoga. His ship was the first carrier to send in fighter raids in August of 1964 after the Gulf of Tonkin incident and one of the last ships to see action in the war with the mining of Haiphong Harbor in 1972.