IT was December, and I was shopping for my upcoming 25th-wedding-anniversary trip, buying odd and out-of-season supplies like a battery-powered travel iron and mosquito repellent. When the sales clerk asked where I was going, I told her that I was going to Vietnam for my second honeymoon. She was stunned. Unfortunately, for most Americans, the word ``Vietnam'' evokes only painful memories. It is the place where a husband died, a father lost his legs, or a veteran returned from, angry and confused. My 22-year-old memories are painful also. But I couldn't explain to everyone how my husband, Larry Rottmann, a Vietnam veteran and writer, had found something special in Southeast Asia, and how he had returned six times since the war and felt drawn to return again and again.
He wanted me to know - and I wanted to understand - the allure that this country and its people had for him. When he described a honeymoon in Hue, with a moonlit sampan ride down the Perfume River, my anxieties lessened.
Packing my carefully chosen supplies, I knew that no matter how well-prepared I was, there was nothing that could ready me emotionally for what lay ahead. Since Larry had warned me that I shouldn't take any more than I was willing to carry, I only packed one small suitcase and a carry-on for the two weeks in Vietnam.
I had read stories about how some Westerners had traveled to Vietnam and returned with very few of their possessions because they had felt compelled to give nearly everything away to the Vietnamese who had so little. So I packed many items which I knew I would be giving away: a giant bag of lollipops for the children, cosmetics, miscellaneous small Christmas gifts, and a half-dozen books.
I was clutching one of these books, ``The Joy Luck Club,'' a story about Chinese-American women, when I kissed and hugged my teenage son goodbye at the airport. I was leaving him in the hands of a college student, and saying goodbye as well to my overstressed life of motherhood, work, and graduate school. It would be a luxury to have time to read for pleasure, not to cook any meals, and to be able to have so much time alone with Larry. But this was not a pleasure cruise. I knew I would be exposed to str ange, exotic, and emotionally laden experiences.
After a 27-hour flight, we touched down in Bangkok. By the time we were ready to board the plane departing Thailand, I had finished ``The Joy Luck Club.'' The engines were already roaring as we climbed up the stairs of the small Russian-made plane bound for Vietnam. We barely had time to squeeze into our seats before the plane taxied down the runway for takeoff. We were the only non-Asians aboard, although there were also a few anxious Vietnamese-Americans who were returning home for the first time sinc e the war. Everyone else was Vietnamese. I was an outsider already.
It was Dec. 20 when the plane landed at Ton Son Nhut Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. The terminal building was small, hot, and crowded, and there were no restrooms. We pushed through the throng of people who were crowding in and straining to see their friends and relatives arriving for the holidays.
We were met by our Vietnamese hosts and driven to our hotel in the air-conditioned comfort of one of the few cars on the streets. The roads were jammed with motorcyclists, bicyclists, and shuffling peasants carrying heavy loads on shoulder poles. Small open-air shops selling meager items lined the streets.
Accustomed to traffic jams, suburbs, and department stores, I found the low-tech scenery and slow pace of Vietnam shocking. But almost immediately my husband relaxed and became at ease in these surroundings which seemed so alien to me. And after a few days, I too became accustomed to the more measured pace.
But my feelings were mixed. I was so far from home - so out of touch. I couldn't read Time or Newsweek, couldn't watch the 6 o'clock news, and, worst of all, couldn't even call home to check on my son. Yet throughout the city, we were met by friends everywhere we went.
Our initial greeting, the first of many tea-offerings set around rectangular tables, was at the External Affairs Office, our hosts' headquarters in the city. After that, I met many friendly people who were eager to make me feel at home. Some were my husband's acquaintances, including government officials, writers, moviemakers, shopkeepers, artists, and ordinary people. Even though I am not normally an outgoing person, it was easy to make new friends, since people everywhere were open and hos pitable. No one treated me like a former enemy. In fact, most people had a kind of ingenuous curiosity, and wanted to know even more about me than I was normally willing to share. I found myself relaxing with these strangers.
It was surprising to see Santa Claus and Christmas trees in the city, and even more amazing was the ``night of the wild confetti'' on Christmas Eve. Thousands of people jammed the central park. Happy celebrants filled the air with ``snow.'' A newly erected statue of Ho Chi Minh with a child on his knee sat in the middle of the melee; a confetti-covered Uncle Ho seemed to be benignly surveying the celebration.
Our Christmas day anniversary dinner party was one of the more memorable events of my life. I sat next to Le Thi Kim, one of Vietnam's most noteworthy poets. She is a beautiful and charming lady, and a working mother like me. Since we couldn't understand each other's language, neither of us wasted words on small talk. We exchanged some of our most intimate thoughts through an interpreter, discussing men, romance, and love.
When she asked, ``What is the secret of a long-lasting marriage?'' I remembered the early years of our marriage, fraught with turmoil. Larry was a confused and angry veteran returning home to a country bitterly divided by war, and I was a young wife in sympathy with the burgeoning women's liberation movement.
I told Li Thi Kim that Larry and I had both grown at different times and in different directions through the years, but that we had accepted the changes in each other. The Vietnam war left its mark on both of us, I explained, but unlike the relationships of many returning veterans and their wives, our marriage survived these changes. She nodded with the understanding of a woman who had struggled with these same problems. When I asked her what type of verse she wrote, she replied with a smile, ``love poe ms.''
At the party, Larry and I received many gifts, flowers, and good wishes. I truly began to feel the warmth and special lure of Vietnam that my husband had described. I realized that the attraction he had felt for Vietnam was far more than a personal or political desire for reconciliation, but was in fact a result of the open and genuinely sharing nature of the Vietnamese people.
AFTER our wedding party, we traveled to Danang, where we spent two and a half days at the nearby oceanside Non Nuoc Hotel. The unspoiled beach and shoreline were a tranquil and inspiring sight. Although we were cautioned that it was ``winter time,'' I sunbathed on the warm sand by the sea. I thought of the popular American television program, ``China Beach,'' which depicts a United States medivac unit coping with the horrors of war. I would have liked my American friends who associate China Beach only with violence and blood to see this remarkably peaceful spot.
We traveled by car to Hue, where we were guests of the People's Committee. I met more of my husband's friends from the Hue Central Hospital, medical school, and university. Since Larry and his colleagues have made a documentary film entitled ``The Bicycle Doctors'' (which features hospital director Dr. Pham Nhu The and his family), I felt I already knew these people before meeting them. Mrs. The welcomed me into her home, and we hugged and laughed like old friends.
We had a honeymoon party with many of these colleagues, and I received more gifts and flowers. When a group of musicians performed especially for me after our dinner, I was entranced by their lyrical transformation of poetry into song. How could the dan bau musician create so many alluring and subtle tones on one string? And how could one drummer with one drum sound like six percussionists?
The promised sampan ride up the Per-
fume River the next day met all of my expectations. We stopped for a visit at the Linh Mu Pagoda, and I thought of my son when I saw the young Buddhist novices watering the flowers. He would have appreciated the sacred spirituality of this place, as he is becoming quite contemplative himself at age 13. Perhaps the trip was having its effect on me, as I found myself wanting to share my feelings with my son, in the same way my husband wanted to share his feelings with me. Larry has called Hue ``the soul of V ietnam.'' On the river, at the pagoda, feeling the warmth and friendship of the people of Hue, I knew what he meant by that phrase.
OUR last stop was in Hanoi, where we were guests of the Writer's Association, and were welcomed by more friends, including well-known writers and scholars. A librarian I met was elated when I gave her my copy of ``The Joy Luck Club'' for her library. With husbands who were veterans and writers and children of the same age, we communicated like sisters, even though she spoke little English and I no Vietnamese.
One night after dinner, Larry and I took a moonlit stroll by Ho Ha Khiem Lake, in the heart of Hanoi. Holding hands, we ambled around the lake observing young lovers quietly sitting side by side on benches. We walked across the Moon Bridge, where a young couple was standing. Although I couldn't understand what the woman was saying, the tone of that one-sided conversation clearly indicated marital disharmony. We walked around the lake, and found our own secluded bench. When we returned to the bridge, the woman was still voicing her displeasure, her husband listening in silence.
Observing the troubled young Vietnamese couple, I tried to imagine what it must have been like 18 years ago for their parents living in Hanoi when the infamous ``Christmas bombing'' occurred. No doubt they were concerned with saving their lives, and had no time for lovers' quarrels. If the American pilots could have known or seen Vietnamese people playing out their lives just like we do, quarreling on a moonlit bridge over some private family matter, I wonder if they could have dropped their deadly weap ons.
After that contemplative lakeside walk on our last night in Vietnam, we attended the theater where we saw the popular and long-running play ``My Life.'' This ``revolutionary'' play's main character is a young woman who is forced by the difficult circumstances of the postwar period to become a prostitute. The story of her life also exposes the many problems and contradictions of war-torn Vietnam, where, as one line of the play points out, ``during the war, everyone was a prostitute.'' The wildly M DNMenthusiastic audience laughed and applauded throughout, and clearly enjoyed poking fun at their own society. It was refreshing to sit in a Vietnamese crowd which was so openly appreciative of a lighthearted political satire.
My impressions of Vietnamese society would have to include the obvious economic needs of the country. Doctors function with sparse medical supplies, librarians have few books and materials, and the local currency, the dong, has no value on the international market. But despite the low wages (averaging about $10 a month) there is plenty of food, and the people are industrious and optimistic.
Everywhere I went, people were eager to try out their English-speaking skills. I became used to strangers approaching me with the greeting, ``Hello, you speak English?'' One Sunday, Larry and I strolled through a schoolyard, thinking no classes would be in session. But two teachers saw us from the classroom and came out to ask us if we would conduct English lessons for their second-grade students. The 7- and 8-year-old children sang a chorus of ``Jingle Bells'' for us, and left us with a ``Happy New Yea r'' song. I marveled at the irony of these eager children singing ``dashing through the snow'' in a country that to me was as alien as snow is to them.
But Vietnam is a country full of ironies. I had seen a Santa Claus wearing GI combat boots with jingle bells hanging off the laces in Ho Chi Minh City, made friends with wives of my husband's former enemies, languished on a beach where American blood was spilled, and viewed political satire in the city which is the seat of the communist government.
The last morning, packing to leave Vietnam, I already began to miss the wonderful friends I had made. I'd come to understand my husband's feelings for this country. The warmth and hospitality of the Vietnamese people had now left its mark on both of us. I had never seen Larry so at ease as on this trip to Vietnam.
Twenty-five years ago, I married Larry during a three-day Christmas military leave. He then went back to Fort Benning, Ga., and I continued teaching in St. Louis. We never had a honeymoon. Then the war with Vietnam tore us apart for a year. And now Vietnam has brought us together for that long-overdue honeymoon, and a deeper peace and understanding than I have ever known.
About the Art
The paintings shown on this page are part of a traveling exhibition, `As Seen By Both Sides: American and Vietnamese Artists Look at the War.' Organized by the William Joiner Foundation, a veteran's group in Boston, the show is the first major cultural exchange between the United States and Vietnam. Most of the 40 artists featured in the exhibit are veterans of the conflict. Pham Nguyen Hung took his first art class while in the North Vietnamese Army and is now enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in Han oi.
`As Seen By Both Sides' is on display at Wight Art Gallery of the University of California at Los Angeles until May 19, after which it will travel through the US and Vietnam.