The Vietnam War and My Own Travels


America's politcal and military involvement in Vietnam War Book CoverHad another book drop this week — The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History by DK. Quite a departure from the travel-related books that I’ve worked on over the past year. But certainly not my first work on Vietnam.

Published jointly with the Smithsonian, the book chronicles America’s military and political involvement in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s as it explores the people, politics, events and lasting impact of the Vietnam War. Filled with more than 500 photographs and broken down by year, Vietnam War tells the story through powerful words and images.

Vietnam War Pivotal Year 1968

My contribution to the book was the chapter on 1968, a year that changed the course of the war and American politics. Among the pivotal events that year were the Tet Offensive, anti-war protests back home, the U.S. presidential election, and Richard Nixon’s secret sabotage of the Paris Peace Talks. To quote the DK publicity blurb, “The Vietnam War is a stirring visual record of the suffering, sacrifice, and heroism in America’s longest and bloodiest conflict of the 20th century.”

I wasn’t old enough to get drafted and didn’t set foot in Vietnam until 1988 to undertake a cover story for Discovery magazine. The communist regime didn’t allow solo travel back then, so my wife Julia and I had to join a small group tour with a government guide. Among our travel companions was a Vietnamese refugee going back to visit her family and an American vet making an emotional return to the place that changed his life. Crammed into a minibus, we journeyed from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat in the Central Highlands and Nha Trang on the coast. Conditions were rough, little in the way of tourism infrastructure. We ate in street stalls rather than restaurants and stayed in rundown French colonial-era hotels.

Land of Nine Dragons

But the country sparked my interest and book ideas that I pitched to publishers in New York. Out of that came two more trips to Indochina and Land of Nine Dragons – Vietnam Today — which won a Lowell Thomas Award as the nation’s best travel book that year. Photographer Nevada Wier was my sidekick on both visits. The first was a month-long drive down Highway One between Hanoi and the Mekong Delta. The second trip a journey into the northern highlands to visit Dien Bien Phu and the hilltribes.

One of our strangest encounters was with another American, a fellow clad in a starched white long-sleeve shirt sitting at the next able over in a restaurant. He invited us to join him, and a lively conversation ensued. It wasn’t until the very end of the meal that we realized we’d been dining with Jay Pritzker, the American billionaire and founder of the Hyatt Hotel chain. 

Groundwork for Vietnam War Book

It also was during those trips for Nine Dragons that I got to know many of the places I would write about in The Vietnam War. The royal Citadel in Hue. The remains of the U.S. Marine combat base at Khe Sanh and U.S. Army Special Forces base at Lang Vei. The U.S. Embassy compound and Tan Son Nhut Air Base in the city called Saigon prior to communist victory. So in writing the DK chapter on 1968, I dipped into memories of my own footsteps through the places that turned the tide of war and American history.