by Lee Foster
A trip to Vietnam awakens a cluster of ambivalent emotions in an American traveler. A citizen of Canada or other countries will have a slightly different reaction, but everyone was affected by Vietnam in one way or another.
Few other countries on earth have such a complex, many-layered relationship with America.
For American men and women in my age group, 60-70, the Vietnam War became a defining event in our coming of age.
More than 1.1 million Americans served in Vietnam, including my best friend from high school, George O’Toole. O’Toole, a West Point graduate, became one of the 58,000 Americans who returned in a body bag. He died leading a mission against some obscure Vietnamese village.
Vietnam tore families apart, pitting father against child, brother against sister, as everyone sought to understand what we had committed to, how we might extricate ourselves, and how we could protect our friends and family.
To travel to Vietnam today, as a visitor, rekindles many of these emotions.
My trip took me to Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
What I found in Vietnam surprised me. Here are four of my main impressions:
1. The Vietnamese bear little hostility towards Americans today, seeing us as just one of many former foreign invaders, which would include the French and the Chinese.
We dumped so much bomb tonnage on them in the recent past that I found this attitude remarkable.
Everywhere in the country I experienced courtesy, curiosity, and genuine warmth.
As my guide in Hanoi, Huy Vu, an intellectual who had traveled to Russia and Germany, expressed it, “The American war ended. Most people have forgotten about the war. Of course, many people have also been born since then and have no memories of the war. The intellectuals understand that it was part of the global cold war struggle, and America’s participation was only one chapter in our many struggles with many countries. The peasants in the countryside are pre-occupied with surviving today, and with building a future. As Vietnamese, we do not look back.”
When you tour the main cultural institutions and museums of Hanoi, such as the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the History Museum, and talk to the people, two points get reiterated:
First, the primary enemy and feared adversary of the Vietnamese is not America, but China. Vietnam now enjoys good relations with China, so trade boats can be seen plying the Red River that flows from China through Hanoi. Vietnamese history is a long story of intermittent episodes of warfare and trade between the two countries. China is always the aggressor with designs on Vietnam, including the era when Kubla Khan sent his Mongolian hordes to conquer Vietnam. Latent hostility towards the French for their century of colonial efforts in Vietnam exceeds the ill feelings towards Americans for our comparatively brief presence.
And second, the strong affection that the Vietnamese people feel towards Ho Chi Minh and the thorough portrait of his life that you see in Hanoi, at his mausoleum, house, and the museum devoted to him, make it apparent to an observer that Ho was essentially a nationalist, intent on freeing his country from the French, the Chinese, the Americans, or any outsiders who came seeking control. Ho’s alliance with Russia and China were essentially opportunistic. One suspects that Communism will be seen, historically, as a thin veneer having little effect on the Vietnamese character. In the noted black-lacquer product workshops in Saigon, it takes perhaps 10 coats to make a lacquer box. Communist ideology may ultimately be seen as a single coat, possibly a transparent coat, with minimal impact on the portrait of Vietnam.
My Vietnamese guide in Hanoi seemed somewhat embarrassed by the heavy-handed Soviet ideology expressed at the Ho Chi Minh Museum. The Vietnamese are grateful that the Russians financed and built the museum to Ho Chi Minh. But the Vietnamese walk quickly past the Soviet ideology section to get to their own story. Vietnamese trade with Russia has dropped.
The Vietnamese seem to have put the war behind them, even if Americans have not, though the grief within families and the psychological problems of former soldiers is universal.
“Like your soldiers, many of ours suffer from mental illness,” said Trung Duong, my guide at Hue, a city in the middle of the country, where much of the intensive fighting took place. “I know old soldiers, among my father’s friends, who still wake up sweating and fearful when there is thunder and lightning in the dark of the night. They think of the B-52 bombers clearing a swath on the Ho Chi Minh trail.”
In Saigon the War Remnants Museum, called the American War Crimes Museum until the normalization of relationships between the U.S. and Vietnam, is as sobering a place as an American traveler will ever encounter. The name change itself suggests the maturing Vietnamese attitude.
Scattered around the courtyard of the museum are samples of captured U.S. weaponry–tanks, big guns, and airplanes. The American firepower in the outdoor courtyard is truly impressive. A 175-millimeter howitzer tank could deliver a deadly projectile with accuracy up to 10 kilometers away.
What an observer learns, when touring the Vietnamese countryside, is that such firepower was inconsequential against a people whose water, food, and energy sources were totally decentralized. A single Vietnamese bicycle on the Ho Chi Minh trail could deliver 200 kilos of rice or ammunition. All the U.S. firepower and defoliants, it is estimated, interdicted only one percent of the supplies moving south.
Within the museum, the matter-of-fact manner in which America’s role in the war is presented has a devastating effect on a visitor’s emotions. It is bitter to recall how out-of-control soldiers tragically executed civilians in the village of My Lai in 1968.
The museum is especially poignant on the ecocide of the country with defoliants, which created “white” areas for aerial surveillance, meaning terrain with no vegetation, no people, and no life forms.
The museum is a bitter commentary on how war brutalizes all the participants.
My guide in Saigon was another young intellectual, whose father had been in the Saigon Army, the American ally, and had later completed “re-education” after the Communists won. This guide, An Duong, suffered discrimination in school because of his family ties, but finally made it through the university.
“What good does hatred do for you?” asked An. “The war is over. Remember how many people we would have to hate. We fought Cambodia, China, and the French, too. If we indulged in hatred, it would consume us.”
2. The ironic roles of victor and vanquished.
One of the ironies in Vietnam today is that the main currency useful to a traveler is the American dollar. Hanoi may have expelled the war machine of the “running dog capitalists,” but the people of Hanoi are eager to embrace the dollar as a stable coin of the realm.
A traveler can function easily with small U.S. bills, $1 to $20, and use credit cards at major hotels. Vietnamese currency, the dong, will be received as change, but there is no pressure to convert dollars to dong when you enter the country or travel about.
Another irony is that Vietnam has rushed to embrace a capitalistic market system, based on incentives. This trickles down to the conical-hatted village farmer, who sells his ducks and rice for a profit, rather than receive a collectivist portion of the village production. The markets, especially in Hanoi and Saigon, are bursting with consumer goods.
The Vietnamese are an energetic people, an observation that is reinforced when you drive to the Hanoi airport at 4 a.m. for an early flight and pass thousands of farmers coming into the cities on their bicycles, carrying huge loads of produce on multi-hour journeys. Although the living standard is low, due to the infrastructure destruction during the war and the isolation of the country by the U.S. embargo (lifted in 1994), all the elements of prosperity are now in place. The rice and vegetable fields in the countryside are farmed with great skill, the people are willing to work, and the tools of distribution, such as good roads and plenty of trucks, are now more abundant. Vietnam stands poised to join its more prosperous neighbors in Asia.
While Hanoi retains a certain innocence, as a lively but struggling city, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) has already boomed. The Chinese district (Colon) is especially prosperous and can be experienced at the Binh Tay market. Vietnamese envy the prosperity of its large ethnic Chinese community, which accumulates wealth in a typically thrifty, entrepreneurial, capitalist manner.
3. The youthful vibrancy, street life, and French architectural legacy of Hanoi.
For me, Hanoi proved to be the most satisfying place to visit in Vietnam. The youthful vibrancy of the city and bustling street life left major impressions.
As you watch young people on bicycles and motorbikes whiz by you on the streets of Hanoi, it almost seems as if the older generation has been banned from the city.
Hanoi is especially engaging in the evening, when families will be sitting along the sidewalk on miniature chairs, eating their rice, pork, and vegetables, with men drinking a glass of local beer.
Attractive, slim young women wear the traditional dress, the ao dai, a tight-fitting garment made of gossamer thin fabric, demurely covering up and seductively revealing every nuance of the body simultaneously.
Snails, grubs, live ducks, pig hearts, and a cornucopia of vegetables can be seen in the Dong Xuan market.
A special performance to savor is the Than Long water puppet theatre held each evening. At an indoor theatre these imaginative puppets, representing everything from dragons to rice farmers, present Vietnamese stories, accompanied by the country’s traditional music. The puppetry paraphernalia is literally under water, which makes the theater experience unusual.
The legacy of low-rise French architecture adds much to Hanoi’s charm. Be sure to walk in the French Quarter and see such architectural gems as the Opera House and the Presidential Palace, now called the Unification Palace.
Hanoi can also serve as your enticing introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. Try the typical breakfast, pho, consisting of rice noodles in a spicy beef broth, with chunks of chicken or beef, topped with seasonings, mainly onions and hot peppers. Hanoi’s fine-dining restaurants, such as Indochine, present multicourse dinners that celebrate the country’s vegetables, fish, and meats (mainly pork and chicken). Chinese and French influences have helped to create Vietnamese food styles. In Saigon, try the restaurant La Taverne for similar taste treats.
Hanoi’s role in earlier Vietnamese culture was significant. Visit the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first “university.” On upright slabs of stone at the site the names of the scholars and philosophers of earlier centuries who passed a rigorous exam given at the Temple of Literature are carefully inscribed.
Hanoi is now the political and spiritual capital of the country, while Saigon is larger and more prosperous.
After Hanoi, which is so distinctively Vietnamese, Saigon seems commercially robust but lacking a little in character and charm. However, a traveler will still want to see Saigon for its War Remnants Museum, Chinese market Binh Tay in Cholon, and a visit to the Presidential Palace, which recalls events and regimes in South Vietnam 1963-1974.
4. The somberness of war-ravaged Hue, the former cultural capital.
One frequent pattern of travel to Vietnam includes a critical stop at Hue in the middle of the country.
Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam, ruling over both the Hanoi and the Saigon regions in recent centuries. From Hue the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945 A.D.) governed the country.
Hue has also been a leading intellectual center, especially for Buddhist thought. Today Hue still has major universities.
Unfortunately, Hue sustained massive damage both in the French and American war periods.
Be sure to see the Citadel, which was an impressive imperial site in the manner of Beijing’s Forbidden City, but on a lesser scale. A model at the site suggests the heritage that war blew apart here.
For 24 days in 1968, during the Tet offensive, North Vietnamese soldiers held Hue and the Citadel. American soldiers scrambled to recover the area in door-to-door combat that leveled much of the city and the Citadel. Only a few buildings in the Citadel, such as the Royal Reading Pavilion, escaped destruction. Nine large urns of the recent emperors also remain, though some are riddled with bullet holes.
Many of Hue’s independent-minded Buddhist intellectuals favored neither the North nor the South in the protracted political struggles of the war. When North Vietnamese troops held Hue for the brief Tet period, approximately 3,000 suspected “sympathizers” with the South were executed.
Outside of Hue, the imperial mausoleum to emperor Khai Dinh shows the splendor and wealth of Vietnam in the recent past. On the mausoleum grounds there is an elaborate room with glass mosaic frescoes and a bronze statue of the emperor. Outside the mosaic room, numerous life-size terracotta warriors, horses, and elephants stand guard, making this monument a miniature version of the large mausoleums at Xian in China.
In Hue you can ride a boat along the Perfume River, often praised by Vietnamese poets and artists for its misty and romantic setting amidst forested hills.
The boat ride will likely take you to the Thien Mu Pagoda, considered one of the most influential centers of Buddhist teaching in Vietnam. From this pagoda a noted monk rode in 1963 to Saigon, where he immolated himself with gasoline in a central square. The images of the burning monk flashed around the world in the relatively new medium of television as a shocking expression of troubles in South Vietnam. You can see, at the pagoda, the car the monk rode in and photos of his demise. He was protesting the Catholic South Vietnamese regime’s discrimination against Buddhists.
Hue, despite its troubled recent history, can also alert you to the beauty of the countryside. By flying from Hanoi to Hue, then driving two hours south to Da Nang for a flight onward to Saigon, you can sample some of loveliest countryside in Vietnam. Forested hills rise along the sea’s edge. Neat rice paddies filled with white ducks can be viewed from promontory overlooks. A week-long drive from Da Nang south to Saigon would show the countryside and beaches with thoroughness.
A visit to Vietnam can help bring personal closure to sad memories of the Vietnam war era. A physical encounter with the country enables an observer to understand how a conventional army, even with vast firepower, could not defeat a decentralized and self-sufficient peasant economy intent on guerrilla resistance. A glimpse at Vietnamese history at museums in Hanoi and Hue also helps an American understand how the Vietnamese saw themselves fighting a nationalist struggle to ward off foreign intrusions of all kinds.
Sorrow emerges in this exercise, however, when one recalls how America became caught up in this quagmire due to an inadequate metaphor, the “domino” theory expounded by President Dwight Eisenhower and others, who believed that all of Southeast Asia would fall to the Communists if Vietnam fell.
And the pain is great when the opening statement of information at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon is a confession from the architect of America’s Vietnam strategy, Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense. The museum organizers quote from McNamara’s 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, where he writes, “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”
Vietnam: If You Go
A visa is required for Vietnam travel and can be arranged through a tour operator or directly.
Tour packages from in-country operators are available through travel agents.
A typical tour will cover Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
Flights to Vietnam often leave from and return to Bangkok, Thailand.
A tour package is highly recommended for many reasons. Airplane connections in Vietnam can be congested, especially at Hue, and tour operators may get priority. An informed English-speaking guide will be critical in each city if you expect to comprehend what you are seeing. Ground transportation in each area should be left to local experts. Hotels can be full at peak seasons, so securing a hotel reservation with a tour can be important. With the language barrier, should you encounter any difficulties in Vietnam, a tour guide’s assistance is helpful.