Nagasaki, Siberia, Vietnam: Some of the bleakest places from the pages of our social studies books (and newspapers) have become some of today’s most alluring destinations. Beyond offering the usual appeal of exotic international travel, they offer a chance to take a second look at history, gain a clearer perspective and develop compassion for the places and people behind former enemy lines.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in everyone's mind. I can still smell the cold cement walls of Parklane Elementary School in East Point, Ga., where my classmates and I would crouch with protective arms overhead to shield us during Civil Defense drills.
Novels like On the Beach and Alas Babylon imagined life after a nuclear attack and described landscapes that would be barren for eons. And so it was with mixed emotions that my husband and I made the decision to book a cruise excursion in Nagasaki, Japan, when our cruise ship stopped there on a 2009 journey from Vancouver to Singapore.
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Nagasaki 60 Years After the Bombing
On Aug. 9, 1945, a U.S. plane unleashed the nuclear bomb Fat Man over Nagasaki. Between 60,000 and 80,000 citizens died within four months from radiation exposure, more than half on the day of detonation. It was the second nuclear bombing on Japanese soil (after Hiroshima) and resulted in the Japanese surrender six days later.
When we the docked for a daylong visit to Nagasaki, I stepped onto the balcony of my suite expecting to see emptiness and desolation. But in the place of a barren landscape were the gorgeous terraced gardens at Glover House, which survived the nuclear blast thanks to the area’s mountainous terrain.
Flowering vines tumbled down the hillside in a riot of green, pink, yellow and red in a landscape that was very much alive. The 1860s-era house and gardens, home to the Scottish industrialist Thomas Blake Glover and now a popular tourist attraction, are said to be the inspiration for the setting of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
The inviting landscape notwithstanding, I wondered about the hearts and minds of the citizens. Although cruise ships regularly call on Nagasaki, would I be greeted with a welcoming friendliness or a lingering resentment?
When we stepped off the gangplank, our Japanese tour guide bowed and smiled then ushered us to a waiting coach. Along with 25 fellow cruisers, we viewed the business district as the bus negotiated its narrow, bustling streets.
First stop: the Nagasaki Peace Park. Built in 1955 to commemorate the bombing, the park sits on a low hill north of the hypocenter. I stood in front of the 33-foot-tall Peace Statue and watched the foreign and Japanese visitors quietly walk up to the park’s centerpiece.
A plaque explains its significance. Nagasaki sculptor Siebou Kitamura’s design represents the divine love and mercy of Buddha. The statue’s right arm points toward the sky, signifying the danger of atomic weapons. The left arm is outstretched horizontally in a wish for peace. His eyes are slightly closed in a prayer for the victims, whose names are held in a vault at the base of the statue.
At the south end of the park, overlooking the city and harbor, sits a dove-shaped Fountain of Peace. From our perch, we watched a group of Japanese schoolchildren marching in unison, and families enjoying a day out. The fountain was built in 1969 to commemorate the victims who died searching for water. A plaque is carved with the lines of a poem written by Sachiko Yamaguchi, a girl who was nine in 1945: “I was thirsty beyond endurance. There was something oily on the surface of the water, but I wanted water so badly that I drink it just as it was.”
The Atomic Bomb Museum was a somber counterpoint to the Peace Park’s optimism. The building houses before-and-after displays plus artifacts and videos related to nuclear weapons. It’s an intense experience. You exit the well-lighted atrium and walk down a ramp into the basement. First you pass through a room depicting life in Nagasaki before the blast — a normal, bustling city. Then you enter a darkened room where chaos reigns: Sirens wail as you view blown-up photos of the disaster. A piece of twisted metal retrieved from the blast stands sentinel in the corner, and unseen lights cast ominous shadows on the ground representing vaporized bodies.
We left the building numb, then crossed the street to where an obelisk marked the actual detonation site. Others were posing for photos in front of it, but I couldn’t. How could I mug for a camera on the spot where a nuclear bomb had caused such devastation?
(MORE: Remembering D-Day in Normandy, France)
Siberia: More Than Gulags and Tundra
Why would anyone want to waste a precious vacation in a frozen wasteland where 14 million Russians languished in oppressive Gulag prisons? At least that was my sole childhood association of Siberia. But then I learned about the Kamchatka Peninsula, which dangles from Siberia into what’s called the Russian Far East. The frigid land is home to the Volcanoes of Kamchatka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an abundance of incredible wildlife: bighorn sheep and snow rams, sable, ermine, wolverines, golden and sea eagles, plus the world's largest population of brown bears.
Traveling to certain locations behind the former Iron Curtain isn’t as simply accomplished as booking a flight and hotel reservations. Due to its remoteness and lack of tourism infrastructure, plus the Russian government’s ambivalent attitude toward tourism, a trip there can be downright challenging. As a result, off-the-beaten-path enthusiasts must choose between local tour providers and adventure cruise operators, like Heritage Expeditions.
The best way to research places like the Kamchatka Peninsula, according to Beth Whitman, publisher of Wanderlust and Lipstick, a six-year-old women’s travel website, is on forums like Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree or Fodor's Travel Talk. Both offer the opportunity to ask questions of recent travelers there.
That same Vancouver-to-Singapore cruise called on Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula. My husband and I booked a day excursion, which is how we wound up en route to Nalychevo Nature Park in a decommissioned Red Army truck with curtains and a vase of plastic flowers glued to the dash. As we bumped along the rugged terrain, I pictured some wartime Russian officer rolling over in his grave. All the while, a young Russian guide told us about Kamchatka’s 300 active volcanoes, part of the infamous Ring of Fire.
At the park, we wandered trails and watched white smoke puff up out of the cone of a nearby volcano. Tiny wooden huts sat in a cluster, conspicuously empty, waiting for winter’s hardy crowd of (mostly Russian) cross-country skiers to return.
(MORE: St. Petersburg, Russia: City of Czars)
Vietnam 2012: Worlds Apart from 1972
While hordes have been heading to Southeast Asia on their own for the past few decades, today most of the major travel companies offer packages to this stunning part of the world. Choices range from budget-minded Intrepid Travel to more upscale companies like Tauck.
How to choose? Beth Whitman recommends starting by querying providers about the focus of the trip ahead of time. “You don’t want to be stuck on a tour that’s strictly historically based if culture is your focus, or vice versa,” she says.
Leslie and Brad Burnside, both 59, of Santa Fe, N.M., had long wanted to visit Vietnam because of their passion for Asian cultures, art, religion and history. They chose a walking tour that explored Vietnam's central coast and highlands. Along the way, they explored the central coast and highlands, including long walks in the countryside and meals in local restaurants and private homes and accommodations in posh lodgings, like the Sixth Senses Hideaway near Nha Trang.
They trekked through rice paddies and fish farms and passed ancestral tombs. In the cooler central highlands of Dalat, they toured a coffee plantation where the world's most expensive coffee is grown: It is made from coffee beans that pass through a weasel's digestive tract. Then they did the more common historical tour. One of the first things a visitor learns is that the conflict we call the Vietnam War is known there as the American War. Unlike the more objective Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, the stories are told from the Vietnamese perspective at sites like Ho Chi Minh’s home, the Hanoi Hilton, Cu Chi Tunnels and the underground city and military base the North Vietnamese built to support the Tet Offensive of 1968.
One site that was on their list — but might not be on everyone’s — is the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, operated by the Vietnamese government. Exhibits include photographs of citizens disfigured by Agent Orange and napalm as well as the My Lai massacre and refers to the United States as American aggressors. As Leslie Burnside advises: “This is not for the squeamish. You will definitely feel uncomfortable here, and many won't stay to see the whole thing.”
Not everyone will get the same experience on a tour in Vietnam. Leslie says a lot depends on the willingness of individual tour guides to discuss this dark and painful chapter in Vietnamese history. In Saigon, for instance, their guide, whose family supported the South during the war, talked openly about the persecution that his family experienced at the hands of those from the North. Other guides, from the North or with Communist Party connections, adeptly dodged her questions.
I had my own powerful experience there. As our ship left Saigon, I watched silently from the deck as a 50-something American stared at the Mekong River, tears streaming down his cheeks. Another passenger whispered that many Vietnam vets take cruises such as ours in attempt to gain closure. Respecting his privacy, I left him to his poignant goodbye. Mist rose from the Mekong as the ship threaded its way between islands and sandbars toward the open sea.
Donna L. Hull writes about active travel for baby boomers at My Itchy Travel Feet, The Baby Boomer's Guide to Travel (http://myitchytravelfeet.com).