In March 2013, retired Navy Commander Ed Arledge and his wife Darlene took their third shared Classic Journey together – this time to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Unlike their earlier trips to Peru and New Zealand, this trip to Vietnam meant something different.

“I had a little trepidation,” Ed says of his trip to Vietnam. He served in Vietnam as a 25-year-old ensign at a naval facility supporting the Mobile Riverine Force. “It was the defining event of my life, but I wanted to do it.”

The first surprise? “I saw no evidence whatsoever that there was ever a war there. In the cities, the level of economic development is unbelievable. The rice paddies that were turned into airstrips are back to being rice paddies again.”

In fact, it was out in those rice paddies that he and his fellow guests had one of their most memorable, totally unplanned experiences. As Ed tells it: “We were at a small farming village outside Hanoi. We’d visited a school and were walking toward a pagoda on a hillside. On a dike between two rice paddies, a man approached our guide Mai. They talked for a while, and she mentioned to the man that I was a vet. It turns out he had fought for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) at the Battle of Khe Sanh.”

Ed Arledge and local

With Mai translating, the two vets greeted each other. And then came the next surprise: “Please come to my house and have tea with me.” So the group took an instant detour to his small, classic Vietnamese home where the beverage of choice rapidly became a pot of homemade sake. “It looked pretty rustic,” he admits now. “But I couldn’t say no. I wouldn’t have said no. And it was some of the best sake of my life.” Good enough, he recalls, for a couple of rounds.

By the time they took their leave, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Ed says. “It was the simplicity and the sincerity of his hospitality. Even though I was the only vet in our group of 10, all of us were touched by his invitation and his warmth. It was really amazing to have an experience like this.”

On every Classic Journey, we encourage our local guides like Mai to modify plans any time an opportunity arises to meet and interact with the people you encounter along the way. In addition to rural and city walks, our vacation in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia includes a night on a luxury junk in Halong Bay, the morning alms ceremony with the Buddhist monks of Luang Prabang, and the temples of Angkor Wat.