Reinventing Vietnam: An Expat Experience

Written By: Laura Dahan

Two years ago, my family landed in Singapore as expats, anticipating a bit of adventure and cultural growth. We had no idea how much our experience would impact those left behind as well. But when relatives and friends visited, they basked in the rich culture of Singapore and took advantage of the proximity and ease of travel to the diverse countries around us that would have otherwise seemed exotic and inaccessible.

This past February, my parents arrived for their annual trip over Chinese New Year, a propitious time to be with family. My growing spirit of adventure called, and the warm beaches and clear skies of Vietnam seemed to be the answer. I was eager to spend this time of renewal and reflection with my parents. However, my looking forward would require my father to revisit his past…something he had never wanted to do.

My father was drafted into the U.S. Army and was deployed to fight in the Vietnam War in 1969. He was stationed in the dense green hills of Da Lat where he fulfilled his responsibilities and was lucky enough to return home to see his wife and meet his one-year-old son.

Although it wasn’t during Chinese New Year, his homecoming was a welcomed rebirth for my dad; a time to focus on family and a chance to look forward to prosperity and happiness. Like many servicemen, he concentrated on putting down roots to provide stability for his family and in turn, suppressed the harrowing memories of jungles, fatigues and food rations.

It is understandable that he resisted reflecting on his time in Vietnam. It was a controversial war, it was not a choice, and the vocal US public was not supportive of his service. But thanks to serendipity, the yin and yang of life, and my father’s willingness to open his mind, we returned to the country he had longed to forget. Forty-nine years after he left, we all headed back.

We opted for the beach in Da Nang where he had spent time during the war. He remembered the endless beautiful beaches, the simple round fishing boats that glide through the shallow coastline, and those steep rock mountains that emerge from the earth without warning. Long-buried memories were prompted by vistas so similar, and yet so different, from years ago.

Where I saw picturesque terraces and vibrant green stalks, my father saw only muddy waters where danger lurked. He recollected moving his tent after lights went out to avoid being killed by embedded Vietcong, and he told of a bomb that came through his roof, destroying his camp and killing his major.

In all my earlier years, he seldom spoke of Vietnam to anyone. The memories didn’t complement the suburban utopia he had carefully crafted for us. Yet, being back on those shores allowed stories to surface and he set them free there, where they belonged. In return, my father saw firsthand a nation’s people that had fared much better under communism than he had feared in his own mind for almost five decades. That, I would hope, provided him some relief.

As expats, we often struggle being away from those we love. But this trip to Vietnam shows how an expat experience can benefit those who are not able to live abroad with us, and can bring us still closer. We can open portals to other times and other places by easing the access to locations and experiences which would seem geographically unattainable if it were not for our expat existence in Singapore.

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