“I am excited and nervous,” said Lan, 67 years young. She was about to meet someone she’d loved 50 years ago.
It was almost 10 p.m. when she reached Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport with her family. September 12 was going to be a day to remember.
While the family members waited at the arrival gate, Lan insisted on standing at Pillar 12, the rendezvous for Lan and Ken Reesing, an American soldier she’d fallen in love with a lifetime ago.
An hour after the flight landed, the veteran did not show up. The tension was almost unbearable for Lan.
Eventually, he came into view, in a green shirt similar to the one he’d worn in a picture taken 50 years ago. He immediately looked for Pillar 12. After an 8,800-mile journey from Ohio, the 71-year-old man was tired, but smiled when he saw Lan, who was wearing an ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress.
Seeing Ken walk towards her with a bunch of roses, Lan held out her arms. They both burst into tears.
The couple spent a few minutes hugging each other.
“The first thing I said to her was sorry. I could not keep my promise to come back earlier,” Ken said. “I am wearing this shirt because it looks like the one I wore in the photo, so she could recognize me.”
Ken was visiting Vietnam for only the second time. He had first visited it in 1969, when the Vietnam War was raging. He was 22.
War and love
Then, he would usually walk to EM Club (Enlisted Men’s Club) to drink and listen to music in the evening. One day, he saw Lan, a bar hostess, and fell for her at first sight.
And among the myriad of American men seeking her attention, she chose Ken. They quickly became an item.
Since 17-year-old Lan was not allowed to enter the military area, they met every weekend.
Ken reminisced: “I never met anyone like her. Her black hair, fair skin and beautiful smile, they were more attractive than anything I could imagine.”
Lan at EM Club in 1969. Photo courtesy of Ken.
When Ken was told he would leave Vietnam in September 1969, he asked Lan if she wanted to go to the U.S. with him, but she refused. She did not want to leave her family.
He says: “I thought our situation would have been different if she had agreed to go with me. Then I hoped it would not be too long before we reunited.”
One day before he left Vietnam the two went to a post office, bought 50 envelopes and put them in a box. He told her that when he got the 50th letter from her, he would return to Vietnam.
He thought it would take her a year to write the 50 letters, but it took her less than three months. And then she kept writing.
But Ken could not come back as promised. And in 1973, they lost touch.
When the war was over Ken wrote several letters to the EM Club and Long Binh Post, but received no reply because those places had been closed.
And all the letters he had sent earlier were later burnt by Lan’s family.
“I failed to keep my words. It broke my heart. I was so stupid,” Ken said. But, even after losing touch in 1973, he could not stop thinking about Lan. Inside him was a glimmer of hope that she would survive the war.
Later, the veteran just wanted to know if Lan was still alive and safe. He had always regretted not asking for more detailed information when they were dating in 1969. He was not even sure what her full name was. He only knew she was a native of Long Binh Province.
After 2000, with the internet gaining popularity, Ken hired international detective agencies to find his first love, but he did not succeed.
He had also enlisted the help of a man living in Bien Hoa who went to Long Binh several times in 2 years. Ken wanted to find Lan secretly because he did not want to disturb her personal life.
But the discovery was not fated to happen until June 2019.
Robert Frank, a man living in Ho Chi Minh City, approached Reesing after learning that he was looking for a Vietnamese woman. Reesing agreed to send Frank some photos of Lan he had.
Frank posted the information on social networks and found Lan within a day.
Both Ken and Lan were confused at first. But when they spoke with each other, the memories of their love came flooding back.
Lan says she had never used a smart phone before until they started calling each other daily.
“It took me a few days to get used to speaking in English with him on the phone,” she says. “I had not spoken English for long.”
Ken told her that he wanted to visit Vietnam. “I did not want him to come to Vietnam alone. It is too far. I have a sister in the U.S and she will come to see me during the Lunar New Year festival, I told him to delay the plan until then so he can travel with my sister,” Lan says.
“But he did not listen to me, he wanted to come.”
Lan, who got divorced several years ago, now lives in the southern province of Dong Nai with her daughter and manages a food store.
Ken, who has experienced a failed marriage too, will stay in Lan’s house in Dong Nai, spend time with her family and friends before returning to the U.S. at the end of September.
In tears, holding hands, they said they have no specific plans for the future.
“We do not want to push anything. We will let things happen naturally.”