Return to Vietnam – Part II
Although Vietnam is still a relatively poor country, Southern Vietnam has clearly prospered since the war when the only real economic engine was Uncle Sam’s aid and GI payday. Ho Chi Minh City, which nearly everyone still calls Saigon, is today busting at the seams with people, shops, restaurants, taxis, buses, and particularly motorbikes. Capitalism, in other words. I was surely not the only visitor to whom it seemed that nearly all of the city’s 11 million inhabitants were out competing for space with taxis and buses on their 7 million motorbikes at all hours of the day and night. Their presence made street crossings daunting. The motorbikes also made it necessary to walk in the street much of the time because the sidewalk space not claimed by outdoor shops and vendors was packed with parked motorbikes. Anyway, I digress.
“…military aid and assistance has again begun flowing into Vietnam from the U.S. government. Who’d have thought!”
Vietnam hasn’t forgotten the war, but its youngish population today has other national concerns. Big ones like its northern neighbor. China is aggressively asserting itself throughout the western Pacific by taking, or building, islands in offshore territory long claimed by Vietnam and other small nations. This has increasingly driven communist Vietnam to seek friendship and alignment with its former hated enemy, the United States. The US Navy is about to return to Vietnam’s waters in order to challenge the Chinese encroachment and Vietnam courting U.S. defense contractors and military aid and assistance has again begun flowing into Vietnam from the U.S. government. Who’d have thought!!
However, even though America has now become somewhat of a friend and ally, Vietnam’s official history/propaganda hasn’t softened. Maybe that will come eventually with the country’s political evolution, but at present, visit any of the war museums and you’ll find much the same one-sided presentation of history that you’d have encountered at the bitter war’s conclusion. U.S. soldiers are still portrayed as barbaric aggressors and the South Vietnamese government and its army are still Uncle Sam’s puppets.
The War Remnants Museum, as the Ho Chi Minh City museum is now known, has quite a display of American equipment used in the war, but I found the place’s history just as interesting. The year the war ended, the museum opened as the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes.” Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, it is housed in the premises of the former United States Information Agency, a bureau not particularly noted for its veracity during the war. In 1990, the name was changed to Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression. Finally, following the normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States in 1995, the more neutral name was adopted. Of course there was no admission of any North Vietnamese war crimes in any of the museum’s iterations. On the day of my visit, and I suspect the same occurs on most weekdays, the place was full of school children being lectured with the “correct” facts.
School children were likewise being educated at another major war museum I visited. This one was in Hanoi. Although I don’t understand Vietnamese, just from its location across the street from Lenin Park and a proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, I could guess its slant.
“I realized I’d found what I came for…closure, or something like it.”
The Vietnamese are a friendly people. This is not to say you won’t find the usual scammers and touts that any tourist destination has, but overall, the citizenry is surprisingly accommodating to Americans. Unlike during the war, during this visit I had more opportunity to connect with individuals. After touring some of the area my mechanized infantry battalion operated in, I realized I’d found what I came for. I think many other combat vets making the effort to return would too. It was closure, or something like it. In my case a component of this closure was the result of something I couldn’t have anticipated—a chance encounter with a former enemy soldier. Appropriately enough, this occurred on a tour bus in my company’s old AO (area of operations) near Cu Chi, northwest of Saigon. A fellow tourist turned out to have fought on the other side as an officer. It was an emotional meeting—and one I’ll not soon forget.
—To be continued—