Memory and loss
Tomorrow I get on a Vietnam Airlines flight from Saigon to Pleiku. There, a driver will pick me up and take me to Kontum, a small city off the beaten path in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
Most of my friends, Vietnamese and expat ask me, “Why”? “No one thinks of going there” they add. The hotel supposedly has wifi and a local artist has created a “hip” coffee shop; it rains a lot. But that is not why I am going.
I have thought of going to Kontum for nearly 4 years,on this very week, the combination of “Unification” Day and International Labor Day. Poor planning (it is a holiday where tickets are hard to come by – anywhere) had prevented my departure previously, causing a friend to say “good, you want to go there to stir up the ghosts of the past and you will just disrupt the harmony of the holiday”. Like other places I have visited in Vietnam, Kontum and the Central Highlands harbor history and ghosts.
In high school I wrote a poem in Sophomore English Class for a Miss Hickey – a tough talking teacher who wielded her criticism harsher than any ruler) entitled “On a Hill, near a field, at a place, called Dak To”. Dak To was a battle for US soldiers and the North Vietnamese causing great loss of life on both sides. I was transfixed watching it on television. Hamburger Hill, the Battle of Kontum, Khe Sanh (where the North Vietnamese army tried to replicate their success from Dien Bien Phu a decade earlier against the French), the TET offensive, these were the images on the nightly news.
In the Central Highlands, many of the local tribes, Jari, Bahnar, and others, dubbed the “mountain people”, Montagnards, by the French, the “yards” by the Americans, were staunch allies of the US against the communists. They were not proxies for the corrupt regime of South Vietnam, nor US tools; they just wanted their freedom and to be left alone. Unfortunately they were on the losing side of history and suffered greatly, both after the war and up to the present time.
Ironically, it is considered by many to be the friendliest part of Vietnam despite the suffering.
So, for lots of reasons I go; ghost hunting, reliving a history I never experienced except on television, paying homage to those who fought and died, and to recognize the sacrifices of those who, for better of worse, were our friends and allies.
I go to Kontum – unless my flight is cancelled -traveling light but with heavy baggage – as is always befitting a place of memory and loss.