One month ago I shared my doubts and hesitations about going to Vietnam, a country about which I have strong and painful feelings. I was young during the Vietnam War and shaken by what I came to see as our mistaken and cruel adventure. Today I report back to you.
Before I went, people told me, “Relax. The Vietnamese people aren’t mad at us anymore. In fact, they welcome American tourists.”
My experience suggests this is true. Last week’s column was about our lovely young tour guides in Hanoi. Like them, most of the Vietnamese I met work with tourists, at museums, hotels and restaurants. I didn’t meet people whose lives never overlap with tourism, nor did they meet me.
But we saw each other, walking through country villages, for example, and never during my visit did I encounter a hostile word or glance. On the contrary, one of our older, professional guides even said she prefers American tourists because they are polite and grateful. I guess I was not the only one on my best behavior.
I pressed our guide for any “negatives” about Americans.
She smiled. “They want a lot of amenities,” she said.
The friendliness of the Vietnamese people only added to the mystery that is Vietnam.
Why are the Vietnamese so forgiving? As I looked for an answer, I found myself going back to the “whys” of war. Why did we fight in Vietnam? What were we afraid would happen if we did not? What were the goals of the Vietnamese? Why were they battling their own people, north against south?
None of these questions has a simple answer.
Everywhere we went (we started in the north, traveled through Cambodia, and re-entered Vietnam in the south) I tried to gather information that would explain the past to me. I was grateful that our guides never shied away from hard topics, at least on the bus. Guiding is a respected profession in Vietnam and requires several years of education.
But I still couldn’t get things straight. I came to understand that Vietnam was never as eagerly Communistic as American politicians thought: after many years as a French colony, their main goal in the 1960s was independence.
In addition, some Vietnamese sought re-unification after being divided by foreign powers. And yet, tension existed between north and south — visceral in ways that are not clear to me — and it continues today.
“We just don’t like them,” said one northern guide.
“We just don’t like them,” said one southern guide.
Every adult Vietnamese, especially those over 40, has a story connected with the war. One of our guides, a business-like fellow of 45 who spoke great English, turned out to have spent most of his youth trying to come to America.
He attempted to escape as a boat person four times. First, his father raised money, but it was stolen. His second trip was canceled when his parents learned that travelers were getting shot. The third time, the craft was too rickety.
Finally, his mother arranged for passage with a relative but the boy fell ill on the day of departure. (The relative is now a professor in Arkansas.) Years later, our guide tried to marry one of the women who had permission to enter the U.S. as the mother of an Amer-Asian child, but he couldn’t amass enough money to be an attractive candidate.
So today he guides American tourists.
“Do you still want to go to America?” someone asked.
“I have a wife now, and a daughter. If I go to the U.S., I have no skills to make a living.” he said.
Even he seemed comfortable spending time with us, and he did his best to help us understand the famous Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi.
By the end of the trip, I was also thinking about future conflicts. How do things work in a capitalist economy under a Communist regime? (I noticed that our tour guides were willing to talk openly on our bus but not in public.)
What is the role of China? Does it matter that the north and south are not good friends? What about the proposed dam in Laos that could be disastrous for millions along the Mekong River?
When I got home, I rushed to the library. I began with a book published in the mid-nineties by Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense 1961-1968, titled “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.” I also watched an Oscar-winning documentary about McNamara called “The Fog of War.”
McNamara discusses personal mistakes, presidential mistakes, and the mistakes of military advisors. Every topic increases the complexity of the story for me. My head buzzes.
Towards the end of the movie, McNamara, recorded at age 85, says, “What the fog of war means is that war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding are not adequate.”
My feeling exactly.
No wonder the Vietnam War leaves me sad and confused, even all these years later.
And yet, nothing rekindles curiosity like “being there,” and the search for understanding that follows travel is as valuable as travel itself. Perhaps it is important to go to difficult places, rather than stay away. I’m glad I made the trip.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org