Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Return to my Mother’s Homeland: A Midshipman’s Experience in Vietnam

By MIDN 1/C Sarah Howard
(All photos courtesy of MIDN Howard)

For years, I have yearned to visit my mother’s homeland, Vietnam. She fled Saigon during the collapse of the war, with only a pair of shoes and a change of clothes. That was 1975.

This is 2015. And I am back ... for the first time.

I am a product of the war, a child raised by a Vietnamese mother and an American father. I dreamed of going to Vietnam, being in a tropical jungle, picking fresh fruit off the trees, and sitting under the shade. I thought women would be dressed in vibrant traditional clothing, and families would be gathered around each other playing cards and drinking tea.

That is not what I saw.

The weather was extremely humid. Sweat dripped off every inch of my body. My eyebrows furrowed under the hot sun, trying to take in everything around me. Families whizzed by on motorcycles, and the streets were crowded with congestion. The air was polluted, and the roads were dusty. The language sounded familiar but I could not understand it. I was a stranger. Yet I felt like I should not have been a stranger. After all, I had grown up learning about it.

I had learned about it, but at the same time, I was shielded from it. My childhood was filled with making trips to my grandpa’s house to make cookies or playing with dolls with my sisters, not memories of war. I had read a lot about the war but never fully understood it. But as you know, reading and experiencing are two completely different things.

In Vietnam, the people wake up early and go to bed late. Their skin is leathered from being under the hot sun. In the city, the buildings are old and tattered. In the country, the houses are small and humble. People struggle to make a living, and poverty abounds. Walking down the street, I grip tightly onto my belongings in fear of losing them. Was this what I expected? No.

We visited what remains from the war. We visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an underground system used by the North Vietnamese during the war. We crawled in the tunnels, and my 5’4” frame could hardly fit. When I arose from the end of the tunnel, trees and bushes surrounded me. Where was I? The booby traps were difficult to identify and terrifying at the least. I couldn’t believe that people would go to such great measures to kill.

We visited the "Hanoi Hilton,” the prison where American prisoners of war were tortured. I was expecting a stone building with large barbed-wire fences. Instead it was remodeled and called the Hanoi Towers, a business center. A small part of the building was preserved for visitors, but it seemed like someone was trying to erase the war. There were pictures of Americans playing basketball and celebrating Christmas, but that was not what actually occurred.

I took some time to look at Senator John McCain’s flight suit and belongings. They were trapped in a glass case, a fragment of the war. I read the caption below and was humbled by his act of forgiveness. He came back to Vietnam years later to build relations and make peace. I don’t know if I could do that.

We visited Hamburger Hill, on Ap Hia mountain. I could not believe what I saw. The mountains were rugged, and the trees were high. The hill was so steep, I found myself catching my breath. In my peripheral vision, I could hardly make out what was one foot to the right and left of me. The jungle was that thick. The bugs were unusually large there, biting me as I trekked up the hill. I could not imagine what it would be like to be dropped off there, with little experience and the enemy in the thicket. The courage of the men who died and fought there is truly remarkable.

At the top of the hill, we had a moment of silence. A moment of silence for those who served and those who died. A moment of silence for those who were prisoners of wars and those who never returned. All those people who made it possible for me to be standing on that hill, nearly 46 years later.

As we trekked down the hill, I thought to myself, “Vietnam is not what I expected.” It is a country broken by war, and struggling to rebuild itself. I wanted to call my mother to tell her what I saw. I wanted to let her know that I understood her now. I wanted to apologize for getting upset about little things, or getting frustrated about riding the bus to school, and packing lunch instead of buying it from the school cafeteria. What I had failed to see all those years is that she tried to give me the best she had ... after losing everything.

At the end of the trip, I came to a couple conclusions. Life is not what we expect. War is not what we expect and takes years to recover from. We owe a thank you to all the Vietnam Veterans who served, those who have served in the years afterward, and those who are continuing to serve. Without their sacrifices, I wouldn’t be able to write this story.


  1. Bold woman, proud to call you my cousin Sarah. -Katie Howard

  2. Wonderful Read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Vietnam. I recently visited Vietnam for the first time and shared the same thoughts as you. It was a wonderful experience. You can see Vietnam through my perspective by watching my travel videos on youtube. You can search TRLT06 Saigon, Vietnam. There are 7 videos that document my 2.5 week visit. You can also follow the link--> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kf34aAjdCtE

  3. Good for YOU, young Lady. History thru the eyes of your Mom is true history especially when you have walked upon her ground. The one thing you did miss though is having military Profs at USNA who had come back from that war. Us Niners were taught the history of the war - good & bad by guys like Kirkpatrick, Natter, Denton, Fellowes, Lawrence, Purrington & Shumann. So much history!//Pete '79

  4. Thank you for sharing this post.


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