Anyone who knows my dad knows that Vietnam is a very influential and important chapter in his life. As his daughter I grew up hearing stories about Vietnam and have memories of watching his slide shows (more than once!) in our living room. Swift boats, patrols, the Mekong, the Viet Cong, Vietnam, Australia for R&R, American GIs abroad, Hanoi Hilton, Jane Fonda, Medals..it didn’t really mean much to me. But never did I imagine I would walk on ground my father had stood on over years before, bringing his slide shows and stories to life.
James and my trip to Vietnam was always part of our travel plan…mostly because James loved it here two years ago, I have never been and well, we were planning to be in the “area” so why not swing through? But it’s an experience on our trip that I am seeing through different eyes.
Vietnam is an absolutely amazing country for a multitude of reasons–the food, the history, the culture, the landscape and most importantly the people. As an American entering a country that was heavily bombed by the States, I was curious how we would be received and how they painted their history. To my surprise, we have been welcomed like local celebrities. Granted, they could wave and say hello to any Westerner coming thru town, but either way I have been blown away by the Vietnamese hospitality.
Small children wave at us and say hello from their bikes, classrooms, homes and while playing with friends in the streets. In above average voices, they yell out hello and giggle when we answer back with a smile and a wave. People our parent’s age, while they don’t call out hello, they do return our smiles with their own big ones. And people our grandparents’ age, of which there aren’t many, smile big toothless grins and give us enthusiastic waves. The eyes crinkle up and wrinkles gather in creases. It’s beautiful, heartwarming and promising considering the right they have to be hostile towards Americans.
Turns out it wasn’t just the Americans who fought here. The whole country has a long history of fighting, both against external forces like France and China and then against their own people. The Vietnam war, a battle between North and South Vietnam, is one of the more recent conflicts oddly enough. I guess that’s what happens in countries that are more than a couple hundred years old.
And here I thought the Vietnam War was their only one.
Similar to other countries, the tourist opportunities are geared towards exploring the history of the place. But a lot of these places are grim reminders of the Vietnam war; remnants of bombs and downed American planes, cemeteries of un-identified VC soldiers, bullet holes in church walls, massacre sights, the Vinh Moc tunnels where babies were born as families lived 23 meters underground to seek refuge from the bombings, look outs over the river complete with bunkers.
While these might fascinate 19, 20 and 21 year old backpackers–or me even–as we hop on and off the comforts of a tour bus, I close my eyes and try to envision laying side by side to a South Vietnamese soldier waiting for enemy supply ships to come up river, or walking 15 feet behind a South Vietnamese solider as they went first, looking for booby traps and land mines. Most of the men and women who served here were over 10 years younger than I am now.
Our tour guides are former South Vietnamese veterans who speak highly of the American GIs as they worked closely together to kill the Viet Cong, and therefore prevent the spread of Communism… or so was the idea. The tour guides went from “profitable” miliatary careers (according to them) earning thousands of dollars/month from the American government to earning $150/month as tour guides.
How many degrees of separation between these men and my father?
Smiley and chipper as they are, you can see the pain in their eyes from reliving war moments each time they give tours. I can’t imagine our Vets ever doing that. Granted I am referring to wars that weren’t fought on our own land but I feel that the Vietnam War was and still is a sensitive issue. I suppose most wars are always tough subjects as there are always differing points of view. But 40 years ago, there wasn’t a separation between supporting the troops vs supporting the war. Returning Vets didn’t come home to parades. The Vietnam War ignited years of protest from the American Citizens and International Community in a way that the US hasn’t seen since.
It has been a very eye opening but contradictory experience while walking the streets, speaking with locals and visiting Vietnam War museums. In the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and the Revolutionary Museum in Hanoi the Americans are portrayed, well, horribly. You would think that it was the American Military with large guns, bombs, grenades, tanks and toxic chemicals vs innocent women and children. No mention of the damage and destruction by the North Vietnamese or other countries. The stories, photos and relics are horrific, gruesome and gut wrenching.
Granted the American Government was supporting the Diem Government (who also repressed his people and we eventually overthrew in a coup) in South Vietnam for over a decade as well as breaking more than one peace treaty and international convention with our actions in Vietnam. But the information is so one sided it’s hard to believe that you didn’t miss a room in the museum talking about other aspects of the Vietnam War. Then take a walk over to the Ha Lai Prison in Hanoi, aka the Hanoi Hilton, and you would think that American GI’s were treated like visiting Heads of State. Hmmm….It made my mouth drop open on more than one occasion. I was truly stunned at the portrayal of American Involvement in the war. Don’t get me wrong. I recognize we weren’t saints.
This just makes the Vietnamese hospitality that much more amazing as the Americans are not portrayed in a positive light. At all. Ever. These museums were visited by more Vietnamese than tourists when we were there making the whole experience that much more surreal. It made me very aware that I was an American, reading about the atrocities committed by my country, while standing next to a Vietnamese National.
Perhaps due to the demographics of Vietnam, that close to 70% of the country is under 30 years old, the country isn’t looking backwards, but instead forwards.
A lot of my experience here involved looking back. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for, if anything. I didn’t feel like I was on a mission to relieve my dad’s experience, more just understand something that is a big part of who he is. I do feel like part of him has been unlocked. His experience isn’t one that I will ever fully understand, but my two weeks or so in Vietnam has helped shed light on a chapter in my dad’s life.
And I am looking forward to viewing his Vietnam War slides and photos when I return home this summer. This time from a whole new perspective.