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Getting Souled Out in Vietnam

“Why would you go there?”

“I’d rather go anywhere else on Earth than there.”

“It was nice knowing you.”

Those are the kind of reactions you get when you mention Vietnam. The word—the place—is cast in a haunting light. Americans, you see, know Vietnam. Or, at least we think we do.

We know the sound of Bell UH-1 helicopter thumping over the jungle. We know the rattle of machine gun fire in its fields, we know that the valkyries cried and our soldiers died over a land 8,500 miles away from home.

58,220 unfortunate American sons made the ultimate sacrifice in the wilds from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi. Some 1,600 are still listed as missing in action.

It’s estimated that nearly 450,000 North Vietnamese troops also gave their lives. The 630,000 Vietnamese civilians added to that count bring the total number of lives lost from 1964–75 over 1.3 million—and those figures are just estimates.

Vietnam, then, is full of ghosts. Many of them haunt survivors even a half century later. For many Americans, Vietnam is a real place, its ghosts real memories of true horror.

So why go there? Why travel to the last place on Earth most Americans would ever go?

Over the course of 10 days, while people back home are ringing in a New Year, five American kids will attempt to answer that question.

The modern picture of Vietnam isn’t found in Hollywood. The communist country normalized relations with the U.S. in 1995, became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2007, and is expected to boast one of the world’s Top 25 economies by 2025.

For some of us, the trip is about understanding that picture. For others, the resurgent southeast Asian country is another scenic destination on a life-long bucket list. As for me? The trip is about discovery. It’s about pushing the boundaries of a box that I think many of us grew up in, a box where other cultures were looked at with a skeptic glare, a box that can become an echo chamber of missed opportunity, if you aren’t careful.

So I’m taking the lessons from Souled Outside and partnering them with a few vets from Yellowstone and Zion (Jeremy and Ashley). We’re linking up with two more friends, who conquered Machu Pichu with them last year (Justin and Michael). And baring any unexpected obstacles, the handful of us will set off to travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and on to the northern coast—a journey of over 1,000 miles.

Along the way, we’ll be exploring the culture of Vietnam via plane, train, boat and motorcycle. We’ll head to the country’s ancient capital city, following the guidance of a U.S. veteran in a Colorado bar nearly four months ago. We’ll hike in some of the world’s largest caves, dine on the country’s most local cuisine, spend millions of dongs, and try to bring back a new impression of country stained with pain.

The ultimate goal is to make it here, to Ha Long Bay.

If we succeed, we’ll spend our last hours in Vietnam soaking in a surreal landscape rivaled by few places on the planet. And we’ll return home with our own sense of the place, with the sights and sounds of something other than doom to pair with the word “Vietnam.”

And we’ll be able to tell you all about it.

It’s been 41 years since the end of the Vietnam War. This holiday season, we return to redefine.

Written by

When my home was sold out from under me, I bought a tent and decided to live outside. Now, I'm a freelance writer for Travel Channel, INSIDER, Nat Geo, and Fodor's Travel and I'm on a never-ending quest to get out of my comfort zones and see the world.

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