My understanding of Vietnam was first shaped by the war that dominated American consciousness in the 60s and that sparked anger and rebellion among a generation of younger Americans. In my case, I was just a few years too young to be in the heart of the anti-war movement. Although at 16 or 17 years of age I began to struggle with the question of how I might respond if I was called to serve, ultimately my draft number in the lottery was high enough that I was spared from making that kind of decision at what seems now to have been a far too-early age.
In any event, the draft ended before my birth year cohort was reached. It became easy to allow Vietnam to recede from my awareness.
The Vietnam that rested in the back of my brain was a land of rice paddies and peasants; of corrupt generals and guerrilla fighters. Monsoon rains and steamy jungles provided the setting and movies from Good Morning Vietnam to Apocalypse Now provided the narrative.
There was little to reorient my thinking. I recall the news when South Vietnam finally fell. The dramatic pictures of the last helicopter lifting off from the roof of the American Embassy and of a North Vietnamese tank smashing through the gates of the Presidential Palace. But it was far away and did little to change my overall vision of the now-unified country.
Ho Chi Minh, who had fought first for independence from the French and then, as President of North Vietnam had ultimately supported the Viet Cong’s struggle to overthrow the US-backed government in the South, died before that conflict ended and never saw the nation reunified. But his vision and his spirit still matters. Uncle Ho’s image is present everywhere and even today school children are taught to honor him.
Although Uncle Ho may be respected still, I wonder whether he would recognize the nation today. The French Indochina War and the “American War” (as the Vietnamese call it) are artifacts of the past. For Vietnamese under the age of 40 they seem like ancient history and the nation seems to be shaped by a new reality. I have read, of course, about the “new Vietnam” over recent years but I hadn’t paid that much attention so perhaps that’s why I’m struck so much by what we’ve seen so far.
Even though I know my understanding of Vietnam and the region is, at best, superficial, the message I take away from our visit here is of a nation that is looking ahead, not behind. That it is a nation in the process of continued transformation. Pride, resiliency and promise seem to be the order of the day.
Bicycles have been replaced by scooters. Luxury stores line the streets in the downtown of Ho Chi Minh City, high rise apartments and skyscrapers abound, and upscale clubs, coffee shops and restaurants are readily found.
McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC, Burger King, and Dominos are all in evidence as is 7-11. Vietnam is transforming indeed. You look at the surge of commercialism and the insidious infiltration of these ubiquitous franchises and wonder…all these years later…who really won the war.
But the folks we met don’t seem to have time for such esoteric debates. They are busy. Working. Living their lives and trying to keep up with the changes. They worry, like we do, about the rising cost of living, about paying school fees (neither private, nor public are free), about affordable housing and healthcare.
There are plenty of challenges that lie ahead for Vietnam but there seems to be an underlying sense of hope. And openness. People thanked us for coming to visit their country. In the markets they smiled broadly when they learned we were Americans. They want the tourism dollar, of course, but they are also proud to showcase their culture and society.
Any images of Vietnam that remained from my youth melted away in the face of this very different picture. I was impressed but also a bit chagrined. I realized how little I really know about the history of this nation. About the ebb and flow of its influence in the region over centuries. Of its battle with Mongol invaders and its rocky history with China, poised on its border. How little I know about the differences between the nation’s regions as you make your way from the sultry south to the more temperate north. How little I know about the differing ethnicities, and the cultural traditions. It reminded me how much more there is to learn. It’s kind of exciting.
So the reading list grows longer, the hope of a return trip is already being nurtured, and as we head to Hue for a look at the history of Imperial Vietnam, I’m looking forward to the chance to build a bit more on my limited knowledge of Vietnam. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as widely read or as knowledgeable as I’d like but you’ve got to admit, the quest itself is half the fun.