The mysteries and complexities of Vietnam have always fascinated me.
For those of us who grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s, Vietnam narratives, movies and veterans living among us have been inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture.
As a child, I recall sitting in the living room of my grandparents’ tiny red-block house constructed on the top of a hill just off of State Road 135 near Freetown. The year must have been 1968 or early ‘69, which would have made me 8 or 9 years old. My grandfather would religiously watch “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite. My uncle, Tom, was deployed there, so naturally, my grandfather never missed a broadcast.
I hated just about anything that was not in the genre of “The Wild, Wild West” or “The Wonderful World of Disney,” but I was also inexplicably drawn to the frightening clips of corpsmen carrying wounded American soldiers on stretchers through billowing waves of elephant grass to awaiting helicopters.
When my uncle returned from Vietnam in June 1969, we all drove to Columbus to greet him as he stepped off of the military plane. He brought us all gifts. Mine was a silky jacket with Vietnamese writing on it.
Over the next several years, I observed his struggle to reintegrate into society. We all knew these veterans. They were our teachers, mechanics and neighbors. I wanted to understand their experiences, and I often asked them directly. Not just about the battles, but I wanted to know about the culture, landscape, people and customs.
As an adult, I read many books on Vietnam, and my intellectual curiosity grew. I wanted to visit Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and learn about the human spirit. How had these three tiny nations that suffered so much managed to recover?
In 1984, I lived in El Salvador, which at the time was suffering from its own civil war. I spent the year reading, writing and trying to understand how humanity responds during times of conflict and crisis.
I met some of the finest human beings on Earth during that year. I fell in love and got married. I made friends and learned Spanish. I played basketball with soldiers and civilians. I lived in the countryside where leftist guerillas meandered at night. I hiked up a volcano, body surfed in the Pacific Ocean and visited Mayan ruins. I went for days at a time and even forgot there was a war going on.
Since then, my career has largely focused on helping civilians recover from conflict, on peacebuilding and reconstruction, as vulnerable populations attempt to transition from some of most brutal civil wars in world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.
Now at the end of that career, in late December 2022, I will finally visit Vietnam. I plan to ride a used bike 1,200 miles from Hanoi through Laos and Cambodia and back to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in about 32 days.
See, it’s a bucket list item, and I am trying my best to spend the entirety of my children’s meager inheritance.
Naturally, I have concerns and self-doubts. I will turn 63 in Vietnam. I have prostate cancer. I am overweight. Nothing on me works as well as it used to, except my appetite. My longest cross-country bike trip ever was last July: 800 miles from Indiana to Florida through the foothills and mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama.
The January 2023 journey will cover elevations every bit as challenging as anything I saw in the U.S., only 50% longer. The weather will be hot, humid and rainy. The southeast Asian roads are notoriously perilous.
Aside from riding short distances one year in Pakistan, I have never cycled overseas, nor have I visited Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. I don’t speak the languages. Visas and land border crossings are more complex and restrictive since COVID-19. I am traveling alone.
Bike-packing means all of my possessions are packed into saddlebags on the bike, so I must be vigilant every single moment or risk losing my phone, tablet, cameras, credit cards and passport if I go into a store or restaurant for two minutes.
But a handful of Australian and European cyclists make similar trips alone each year. Some sleep in tents they pitch along the road when they can’t find accommodations. If they can do it, so can I.
Craig Davis, who was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central High School, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. You can visit the Living with Cancer weekly blog at marvingray.org and write him at [email protected] You also can follow his travel blog, “Cross-Country Bike-Packing at 63: SE East Asia,” at marvingray.org. Send comments to [email protected]