Vietnam: The Unexpected Highlight of SE Asia (Pt. 1)

We nearly missed it... We almost skipped Vietnam and missed my favorite country of South East Asia. All we read in preparation were blogs warning of the scams and the poor treatment Americans received there. We went anyways and LOVED it. Not only was it historically important to us, but it was also unbelievably beautiful, culturally rich, and intellectually and emotionally challenging. There was so much to process, I had to split it into 2 parts. So here we go, Vietnam:

Part 1: The Legacy of War and a Warm Welcome Back

Any American over the age of 40 likely has some memories associated with the incredibly recent war with Vietnam (known as the American War in Vietnam), and any American younger than this will have studied this war in middle school. I vividly remember watching the ridiculously pro-USA propaganda John Wayne movie The Green Berets at my cousin's house when I was a young kid and again in the 5th grade while studying the war, balanced by Apocalypse Now while living in New Zealand a few years back. I also remember my young self running a hand along the cool black gabbros wall in Washington DC memorializing the nearly 50,000 American soldiers killed in the war. As my small fingers passed over the scores of names engraved in stone, I remember struggling to make sense of what it all meant. Fifteen or so years later, I am still not sure I understand. Although the war was over many years before I was born, the effects are deeply embedded in the fabric of my being, as well as in the history of the country for which I proudly hold a passport--a privilege that allows me freedom to visit such a place as Vietnam. It was not lost on me during our stay that 50 years prior, American men my age and younger were involuntarily sent to Vietnam to kill and perhaps die, and here I was willfully visiting in attempts to live and learn.

Given the recent history between the USA and Vietnam, Jaimie and I were nervous about visiting and in fact were asked by an older friend via text message prior to our arrival if we were (in not-so-appropriate language) crazy for venturing into "enemy" territory. We quickly realized upon arrival that our fears were largely unfounded. The people were kind--if not slightly more cold than the surrounding SE Asia countries--and welcomed us gladly. We realized after a day that while we as Americans view the war in defeat and assume we must be hated for the destruction caused by our country's military, the Vietnamese view it as a great victory--a source of pride having driven out the largest military force on the planet from their country. As a fantastic article on TravelHappy accurately describes, the common sentiment we received was "Hello, American! We beat your ass, now, didn’t we? Welcome back, all is forgiven." We also received many "America #1!" comments by young Vietnamese, often followed by their dreams to visit someday. We were even told by a tour guide that if you ask Vietnamese citizens about Americans, 99% will tell you they like them, while 99% will also tell you they hate Chinese... Strange, indeed.

On our first day in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), we took an uncomfortable trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, an incredible network of tunnels and booby traps used by the VietCong in combat with American troops. These tunnels were virtually invisible in the deep jungle and incredibly effective for the Vietnamese, leading the Americans to scorch the earth with napalm and bombs from B-52s, the latter of which could be seen by the vast craters throughout the new-growth jungle. We felt very conflicted and certainly uncomfortable during this tour as we heard about the ways "American Killer Heroes" beat back the Americans in terribly gruesome fashion with swinging booby traps and poisoned pongee pits. Crawling through the tunnels felt wrong--as did taking pictures--however impressive the tunnel system and camouflaging methods were. Perhaps most disarming was the constant sound of AK-47s and other weapons being fired at the adjacent shooting range, making the experience far-to-close to the reality of what happened on those grounds. Although presented far too one-sided for my taste, it was easier to see how the war escalated into the war crime brutality it is known for in the later years. The Vietnamese did not have the fire power that the US did, and therefore, they played to their strengths by using the jungle terrain and homemade weapons to their advantage, including nasty traps to ambush American troops. In response to their virtually invisible tunnels and guerrilla tactics, the Americans attempted to level the playing field by burning the forests to ash and bombing the earth in order to expose the traps and tunnels for their ground troops. This continued ratcheting to uncontrollable levels later in the war with Agent Orange and other chemical weapons used by the US in response to civilians taking up weapons unexpectedly in villages and rice fields. Atrocities of war abounded, none more apparent than when we finished the day at the war museum.

The War Remnants Museum (formerly the "Museum of American War Crimes") is situated in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, seemingly serving as propaganda and a celebration of the Vietnamese victory and American brutality. We constantly needed reminding that Northern Vietnam won the war, defeated Southern Vietnam and the stronghold of Saigon defended by the American troops, and setup the current socialist government. Thus, the museum was not favorable towards the USA, and focused solely on the atrocities committed by the States. This was incredibly difficult to process. The first level of the museum was primarily pictures, letters, and other propaganda from countries around the world protesting America's involvement in Vietnam. It was heavy on photos from places considered American Allies, and only included a small section dedicated to photos of the protests in the States depicting draft dodgers, marches on DC, and other letters from soldiers gone AWOL. The next 3 levels contained photos and stories of crimes committed by the hands of American soldiers: atrocious pictures of mutilations, mass murders of civilians, the aftermath of agent orange on children (for several generations), and the devastations of war on the countryside. It was a moving exhibit that certainly highlighted the brutality of the American involvement, but painfully avoided any such presentation of the opposite perspective.

Overall, it was an uncomfortable day as an American on several levels, but more than anything, it was uncomfortable to be human and witness the atrocities committed by both sides during the American/Vietnam war. It was a sobering reminder that violence breeds violence and that darkness lasts generations. I am humbled that we were so warmly received in Vietnam overall as Americans and that a general peace has been found in a very short time. I also admire the Vietnamese people for their hospitality despite our countries' recent history. It is hard processing and sharing experiences like this, but terribly important to remember the depravity of man and the darkness of war without light, hope, love, and understanding.

I have a much deeper understanding of the war that informed so much of my country's history, and a deeper conviction that war is terrible on every level of humanity. I hope and pray that the memory of such atrocities are never forgotten, but further, are learned from and avoided in the ages to come. As I recall the memories of the thousands of names beneath my fingers as a boy in Washington DC--those individuals that gave their lives in preservation of a nation's particular ideas of living--I am saddened yet empowered to be a part of a better solution. Travel is a means to reconciliation--a bridge that connects and leads to deeper understanding and respect, allowing a broadened perspective that give birth to more compassion for the fellow man.

"Welcome back, old friend," they say. Our visit was not a tour through the DMZ and into enemy territory. No, it was a journey into the home of a friend, through a process of reconciliation, and into a space of mutual respect and understanding.

Vietnam is a beautiful place, and one I am honored to have experienced and been challenged and encouraged by. Stay tuned for part 2, entitled "Part 2: The Breathtaking Beauty of Vietnam."