Vacation In Vietnam A Journey Into Healing

For the average American, Vietnam is unlikely to feature on a list of vacation destinations. But for writer Kristen Henderson and her military husband, fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, it was the top choice. The couple packed their bags for a one week vacation in a country still recovering from the ravages of war. And were surprised at what they found. Henderson wrote about it for this week's Washington Post magazine and shared her experience with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. It's that time of year when everybody's trying to thaw out from winter. And maybe, if you're lucky, you're starting to think about a vacation. Writer Kristin Henderson has a suggestion for you.

In this week's Post magazine, she writes about her travels to Vietnam, a destination she found surprisingly affordable, friendly and on the mend in the decades following the Vietnam War. Kristin Henderson is here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios to talk with us about her trip and her piece. Thanks so much for joining us. Welcome.

Ms. KRISTIN HENDERSON (Writer): You're very welcome. Thanks.

MARTIN: Why Vietnam?

Ms. HENDERSON: Well, both my husband and I grew up during the '60s, during the war. So that was part of my consciousness as early as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is listening to Walter Cronkite on the news talking about how we were - American soldiers were fighting guerrillas and there was a jungle scene on TV. So I was waiting to see American guys fighting, you know, big hairy apes.

MARTIN: Like King Kong.

Ms. HENDERSON: Right. Right. So I was disappointed in that regard. But I just felt

MARTIN: In your child's mind. Of course.

Ms. HENDERSON: Right. Right.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. HENDERSON: That tells you how young I was. And age is part of it.

MARTIN: But there wasn't - did, like, a leaflet show up on your desk or something? Like, one of those faxed affordable destinations - a fax or something like that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HENDERSON: No. And I didn't realize how affordable it was going to be. No, I just think we were always really curious about it. And we were living in Japan at the time. So it was, you know, kind of close. So it seemed like an interesting place to visit. But we were both a little apprehensive, you know, in part because it had been the enemy, when we were kids.

And I suppose if we'd thought about it, it would've made more sense that it wouldn't be anymore, because, you know, we've - we were living in Japan, also a former enemy - visited Germany and found everyone friendly in those locations.

MARTIN: Now, you write about the notion of healing in a number of senses, and I do want to mention that your husband had just returned from Afghanistan where he was serving as a Navy chaplain and he'd spent time with a NATO medical unit. And you'd also been to Afghanistan, as a writer.

And so I'm interested - and I don't want to belabor the point because this is very personal - but the whole process of, kind of, coming back from a place where you're seeing quite a lot of trauma, and you're going to a place that has also seen its share of trauma. Did you think that those two themes or feelings would kind of intersect in the way that they did or was that just kind of a happy accident?

Ms. HENDERSON: No, I did not expect that. It didn't really hit me till we were arriving there and we were looking at our agenda and one of the things we planned to do was visit a place called Friendship Village, which was a facility founded for victims of Agent Orange. And it was created by combat veterans of the war. So American, Vietnamese and French combat veterans.

And, you know, as we were arriving there, I was thinking, you know, my husband just spent months dealing with, you know, the damage of war and here we are coming into this as well, on vacation, is this the best idea? But it did turn out to be incredibly healing.

MARTIN: One of the things that you write about in the piece is that the hotels were pretty great. Food, great. But there were also memorials to the war that were disconcerting. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Ms. HENDERSON: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, Vietnam offered everything - depending on what you're looking for, it has it. You know, in one area there were these Western style top-of-the-line resorts right on the south China Sea. And then on the other hand, the tunnels that were used to ferry supplies and hide fighters during the war still exist outside what used to be called Saigon and is now called Ho Chi Minh City. And it's been turned into kind of a tourist attraction.

They have guides who take you through and people from all over the world visit them. At the entrance to some of these tunnels you can dress up like a fighter and have pictures taken. You can take your turn firing an AK-47. You know, that was disconcerting, especially having seen what real war is like.

On the other hand, the guide who was taking us through, his dad fought in the Liberation Army and he had a pretty laid-back reaction to it and said, you know, different tourists, different sense of humor - which was a good lesson for me, too, not to necessarily sit in judgment. And it gave me a chance to kind of examine my own assumptions about people's willingness to let go of past hurt and move on and grow and heal.

MARTIN: What do you think you got from this trip?

Ms. HENDERSON: I think it affirmed my hope, both that my husband will continue to heal from his experiences. For him his service was taxing in many ways, but also very satisfying and he has continued to heal from that as we go through the year since that time.

MARTIN: How's your husband doing, by the way, if you don't mind speaking for him? And thank you for his service and yours, too, as a military spouse.

Ms. HENDERSON: You're welcome.

MARTIN: You know, you're doing your own...

Ms. HENDERSON: Thank you for that. Yeah.

MARTIN: You're doing your own form of service.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, thank you both. But how's he doing?

Ms. HENDERSON: He's doing very well. At the time when we were in Vietnam, that was the numb phase. There a series of phases you go through, and they're very similar to the grieving process. And after the numbness faded, then the feelings grew very strong. There was grief, there was anger, some sleeplessness and other reactions. But those have faded with time. And he's doing work that continues to be - feel very worthwhile to him. I think that's all very helpful.

MARTIN: And, finally, do you mind if I ask you, I know that you don't want to make too much of this, but you did hope that Vietnam does offer some lesson for Afghanistan. Some of the people you talked to in your piece - rather skeptical of that. But tell us what you think about that.

Ms. HENDERSON: Right. Yeah. Vietnam and Afghanistan are two very different places. But it's been 30, 40 years now in Vietnam. It's a very young country. Most of the people there are young, don't have any personal memory of the war. And it really is a booming, friendly, beautiful country. And there is some environmental degradation left from the war that is being worked on.

But it's amazing to me how far it has come. And that seems to happen over and over again. If you look at our other former enemies, Germany, Japan, they too have come so far. And to me that's a very hopeful message that war wounds do heal.

MARTIN: Kristin Henderson is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She wrote the cover story for this week's Washington Post magazine. If you'd like to read the piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, it's entitled "The Peace." And that's spelled P-E-A-C-E. And we will link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, then, choose TELL ME MORE from the programs tab. Kristin Henderson, thanks so much for joining us.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HENDERSON: You're very welcome.

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