In new role, Kerry back in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta
John Kerry returned on Sunday to the winding waterways of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region where he once patrolled on a naval gunboat in the search for communist insurgents.
But nearly 50 years later, Kerry is promoting sustainable aquaculture and trade in a rapidly expanding economy rather than hunting Viet Cong guerrillas, as he was at the height of the Vietnam War.
As Kerry’s boat eased off a jetty onto the Cai Nuoc River, the US secretary of state told his guide: “I’ve been on this river many times.’’ Asked how he felt about returning to the scene of his wartime military service for the first time, Kerry replied: “Weird, and it’s going to get weirder’’.
On this tour, Kerry was clad in drab olive cargo pants, a blue-and-white plaid longsleeved shirt and sunglasses instead of the uniform he wore as a Navy officer in 1968 and 1969. In a new role, Kerry was revisiting the delta’s rivers that made a vivid impression on him as a young lieutenant.
Kerry, standing next to the captain and surveying the brown water and muddy banks, recalled the smell of burning firewood as his boat passed through small fishing villages.
At one point, a family in a sampan traveling in the opposite direction smiled and waved. Kerry waved back, and noticing the family had a dog on board, remarked with a smile: “I had a dog, too. Its name was VC.’’ VC was the abbreviation for the Viet Cong forces fighting the South Vietnamese and their US allies.
Stopping in the village of Kien Vang, Kerry visited a riverfront general store and bought candy for a group of children.
Kerry addressed a group of older students and scientists, delighting them first with a few words of Vietnamese before speaking strongly about the need to combat climate change.
“It is obviously amazing for me to be here today,’’ he said. “Decades ago on these very waters, I was one of many who witnessed the difficult period in our shared history.’’
“Today on these waters I am bearing witness to how far our two nations have come together, and we are talking about the future and that’s the way it ought to be.’’
That future, especially for the water-dependent economy of the millions who live in the Mekong Delta, is threatened by rising sea levels and planned upstream construction of dams in China and Thailand.
Kerry said he will make it a personal priority to ensure that none of the countries that share the roughly 4,345- km- long Mekong and depend on it for their survival exploit the river at the expense of the others.
Forty-four years ago, Kerry first set foot in Vietnam as a US navy officer who volunteered for service because, as he has said, “It was the right thing to do”.
He was decorated with three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for fighting in a conflict that he came to despise and call a “colossal mistake”, one that profoundly influenced his political career and strategic view.
“When I came home after two tours of duty, I decided that the same sense of service demanded something more of me,’’ he wrote in his 2003 book, A Call to Service, as he was unsuccessfully campaigning for the presidency.
“The lesson I learned from Vietnam is that you quickly get into trouble if you let foreign policy or national security policy get too far adrift from our values as a country and as a people.’’
US Secretary of State John Kerry greets a shop owner while visiting her store along the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam on Sunday. Kerry returned to the winding waterways of the area where he once patrolled on a naval gunboat in search of communist insurgents.