BY: PATRICE COLLINS

In July 2017, while helping at a local veterans event, Ron Kirby – a member of the local Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter – said to me, “Patrice, why don’t you come to Vietnam with us next year? You do so much for veterans and we would love to have you join us!”

Eight months later, myself, my son Chad, 19 Vietnam veterans, and five of their family members set out on a trip of a lifetime on March 6 as we departed Knoxville bound for Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam.

While there, the group enjoyed a day-long tour on the Mekong Delta River, a region in Southern Vietnam. It is a vast maze of rivers, swamps and islands and home to floating markets and villages surrounded by rice paddies. A few of the veterans we were with battled in this region during the Vietnam War. I will never forget the words spoken by one of them while going down the canal: “The last time I was here, the water in these canals was red.” Needless to say, tears were shed as he told us his story.

The rest of the time in Saigon, our group took private tours around the city, visited the war museum, Reunification Palace, famous Buddhist temples and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the busiest city I have ever seen!

On March 11, we left Saigon and flew northeast to the city of Da Nang, Vietnam, where the world-famous China Beach is located. This is where the American soldiers fighting in Vietnam were sent for R&R during the war. During our time in Da Nang, our group took an authentic U.S. military Jeep tour up to “Monkey Mountain,” where the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps had a joint military base during the Vietnam War.

Our group also took a day long trip to the city of Hue. The road we took to get there went through Hai Van Pass, which was very near the demilitarization zone – the area that separated the North Vietnamese Army from the South Vietnamese and U.S. troops. Some of the veterans with us battled in this pass and trudged through the jungle-like terrain. They pointed out where bombs had dropped on the mountainous hillsides. The stories they told will forever be etched in my mind.

Our trip concluded with a stop in Siem Real, Cambodia for sight-seeing at the many beautiful temples and tourist spots. We left Cambodia on March 18, and the trip of a lifetime came to an end. There are not enough words to describe what a wonderful time we had and the memories we made. There were highs and lows, happiness and sadness, but most of all, hopefully healing for many of the Vietnam veterans that returned on this trip for the first time.

Thank you so much to my wonderful family, friends, co-workers, military units, veteran organizations and many others who made this trip possible.