Having served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, Jerry Goedderz, of Royalton, had decades-long ideas and opinions about the country based on his experiences and those of his peers. He never anticipated traveling back to Vietnam and having those ideas replaced with anything different. That is exactly what happened after his son, Josh, moved to Vietnam and Jerry and his wife, Audrey, took a trip to visit him.
“My concept of our presence in Vietnam during the war led me to believe that the Vietnamese people would not think well of Americans,” he said.
Jerry served on Okinawa and in Korea with the 12th Strategic Air Command. Although his job in operations was basically an office job, keeping track of bombing runs over Vietnam, it included countless conversations with other service members about their personal experiences in Vietnam. Part of his job also entailed cleaning out the lockers of pilots who didn’t return from their missions.
When their son, Josh, traveled to Vietnam and then moved there, the country was back on the minds of both Jerry and Audrey. With the unpopular Vietnam War firmly in the past, it was a surprise to Jerry and Audrey to hear their son talk in enthusiastic terms about his life there. He kept encouraging them to come for a visit.
“He started out taking a two-month trip throughout Southeast Asia and settled in Hanoi,” Audrey said. “He didn’t like the weather there or the solemn atmosphere.”
“We weren’t crazy about it when he went there,” said Jerry. “What if something happened; he likes to travel alone.”
Then Josh went to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and things started looking up.
“He had no historical background knowledge of Vietnam,” said Audrey. “He kept telling us how he loved to visit a certain city, Da Nang. ‘Have you heard of it, Mom?’ he asked me.”
For those who lived through the Vietnam War years, the city of Da Nang is better known as the location of a major United States air base, with Army, Air Force and Marine Corps units stationed there.
“He kept relaying how nice it was and why he wanted to stay there longer,” said Jerry. “I had a hard time believing what he was saying.”
Josh told his parents what a beautiful country it is and how the people always wanted to talk to him and speak English. One man he talked with in a restaurant asked him why he was in Vietnam. After being told Josh was living there, the man wondered why he would want to do that, because “America is the best!”
But at Christmas of 2015, Jerry’s brother, Stan, and his wife, Dorlyn, started talking about the four of them traveling to Vietnam together. Dorlyn took the bull by the horns and arranged the entire trip.
Dorlyn’s enthusiasm and Josh’s eagerness overcame Jerry and Audrey’s reluctance.
“We wanted to see Josh, and Dorlyn was so meticulous and careful about plans,” said Audrey. “We agreed somewhat reluctantly to go, but we had reservations.”
“Josh told us we would have a wonderful time,” Jerry said.
Before they left on the trip, Jerry and Audrey ran into some acquaintances who had been to Vietnam and assured them that they were going to really enjoy it. They were still baffled because that was not what they were expecting.
They were beginning to see how popular opinion about Vietnam has shifted with younger generations. When they had the photo taken for their visa, the woman in her early 40s who was taking the photo asked where they were going. When they told her, her reaction was to ask, “Where’s that?”
In May 2016, the four were met by Josh at the airport. He told them that it was very safe in Vietnam and not to worry about their money, but to “hang on to your cell phone!”
“Josh said people would be very nice to Westerners,” said Jerry. “It just wasn’t my concept of Vietnam.”
Josh described how his landlady cleaned his room and found his roll of money one day. When he got home, she let him know that she had put it in a much better place where it would be better hidden.
Jerry and Audrey, Stan and Dorlyn spent their time between Da Nang and Saigon. They visited old Viet Cong tunnels. They were surprised to see nearly all evidence of United States military presence erased. An exception was five Quonset huts situated across from China Beach, a location that had been popular for American military rest and relaxation.
They also found that everything Josh had told them was true.
At one point, Jerry was just so puzzled that he asked Josh’s boss, who spoke good English, “Why don’t you hate us?”
The response was simply, “We’ve moved on.”
“We thought we’d feel more resentment,” Jerry said. “But they look forward.”
“They want to be progressive,” Audrey added.
They discovered that Vietnamese people as a whole are either working or they are sleeping. Josh had told them that they wouldn’t see a couch in Vietnam, since nobody just sits around.
The group toured the Mekong River. It was a strange contrast to see rundown homes along one side of the river, but to have access to Wi-Fi on the boat. Another contrast was seeing people pushing carts through the streets by hand while talking on cell phones.
The group was adventurous and tried some “pretty bizarre food, like fish soup with the heads in it. We like to taste different things,” said Audrey. “Sometimes we really didn’t know exactly what we were eating, but we just tried it.”
One fond memory included visiting a bird park, where people sat drinking tea – a rare time of leisure. They discovered that Vietnamese people commonly go on vacation to look at flowers, men and women alike. They saw orchids everywhere they went.
One day while walking down the street, Jerry and Audrey came to two ladies carrying fruit. One of the women said to Jerry, “You hold,” and she put her hat on him for a photo.
“They wanted to be in the picture, even if it was our camera, and they would never see the photo,” he said.
For all of its beauty and the cheerfulness and kindness of the people, there are some things that point to Vietnam being a communist country, though.
“We could tell that people were not free to talk about certain things,” said Jerry. “Also, there was an incident where factory waste was released into the ocean, and countless fish were killed. We didn’t see anything about it on the news in the United States until three months later; it was kept pretty quiet.”
Despite low expectations, and after so many positive experiences with the people of Vietnam, their time there is a fantastic memory.
“We thought it was the trip of a lifetime; it was so different,” Audrey reflected. “There were no bad experiences at all.”
“I wouldn’t hesitate to go back,” said Jerry.