Saigon, Vietnam, 2018
Since 1975 and the reunification of the country, the official name of Saigon is Ho Chi Minh city. For the locals, they use this as a way of separating the natives from those who came later.
If you refer to the city as Ho Chi Minh city, you are not native. As one travels through the country, the distinct cultural differences from the Mekong Delta to Hoi An to Hue and north are subtle but evident. The majority of the Vietnamese still have an intimate connection to the land and a self-sustaining lifestyle. From the fish traps on the Mekong to the rice paddies, much of their food is grown or caught.
What they don’t use, they sell. Every city, town, or small village has a night market. There are few grocery type stores, their food is bought daily if they cannot grow or catch what they need.
One has to stand in the middle of night market to appreciate it. The ones in the bigger cities are a spectacle. Try to imagine an open-air market, in some cases several city blocks wide, with every manner of familiar and unfamiliar vegetable, live and soon-not-to-be-live fowl, flopping fish, flying fish scales, rising and falling meat cleavers, displaced pig’s snouts, or feet, or some once functioning organ, roiling pots of soup, set to the soundtrack of animated negotiations over price and quality. All permeated with an aroma of coppery blood saturated with garlic and fish sauce, orchids and jasmine, sweat and motorcycle exhaust. The walkways are slick with a mixture of melted ice, blood, oil, and who knows what else that makes dodging the motorbikes, who cruise through like an armored version of a pedestrian, a challenge.
And that’s just the food area. There are vendors selling everything. All of it genuine fakes with the occasional real thing that “fell off the truck.”
In the bigger cities, a more cosmopolitan world is taking hold. Foreign investment–Chinese, Japanese and South Korean-is altering Vietnamese society with fewer and fewer of the next generation following in their ancestors’ footsteps into the fields.
There is a price to pay for this capitalism within a Socialist government. Those who benefit most from the economic boom are the police, military, and government officials.; their hands out in exchange for favorable access to land, security, and business development.
The local traffic cops stake out prime areas for enforcing traffic using the “pay-on-the-spot” fine collection method. I use the term “traffic enforcement” as a joke, no one follows traffic laws so if you are stopped they consider it a nuisance road toll, pay the fine, and speed off. Usually the wrong way at a rotary.
The more “successful” cops are rewarded with prime posts to enhance their ability to “pay-it-forward” to the commanders.
Corruption is rampant. As we drive by the more ostentatious houses, we are cautiously told the official positions of the owners. The socialist government imposes effective, albeit subtle, control over the general population. Much of their life, from required registration of cell phones with the owner’s picture on file to blocked sites on the internet, is controlled by the government.
The Vietnamese are circumspect in their criticism of officials, but they get the point across. Those in the south, below the old demilitarized zone (DMZ) have more experience with a free capitalist economy, and many openly express their wish that the Americans had never left.
For most, they are free to live their lives as they like while toeing the official line in the public view.
One of the most profoundly striking aspects of Viet Nam (despite our penchant for writing Vietnam, Viet Nam is the proper name) is the attitude toward the “American War.” Now I am not talking about the official government position but that of the everyday Vietnamese.
They take great pride in the reunification of the country. The Vietnamese see Ho Chi Minh as a national hero is the same light as we view Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. The declaration of independence made by Ho Chi Minh on September 2, 1945, is modeled on our own of 1776.
Yet they harbor no ill-feelings over our time there. There are differences, of course, between the north and south. In the south, they would have preferred us to stick to the original commitment made after World War II and let the Vietnamese determine their own course. In the north, they are a bit less embracing of the newly evolved capitalism driven by tourism and outside investment but see their victory in the south as their manifest destiny.
To the Vietnamese, we are their British.
We tried to prevent self-determination, and they fought to win it. But in this predominantly Buddhist country, the people do not cling to the past. The war is over, and now we can live and let live.
There is another difference between the north, near Hanoi, and the south, near Saigon, that underscores the benefit of an “open” society.
In Hanoi, the streets are dark and dank. People gather in sidewalks, alleyways, and various other locations to cook and eat meals. We think it is a combination of limited space and the heat inside their apartments. The long-term effect of communism in the north contrasts dramatically with the more vibrant Saigon and the south.
Cu Chi tunnels and the American War
We had the opportunity to tour the Cu Chi tunnels. To say it was troubling is an understatement.
We were warned that the story is told from the perspective of the Viet Cong and their victory over the South. During our visit, a busload of former Viet Cong and NVA military veterans visited the area. A Vietnamese version of the honor flight.
It was difficult to hear the recounting of valor in battle where the soldiers were awarded medals called American Killer Heroes. But such is the fact that victors write history. While the point is often made that the North Vietnamese Army or the Viet Cong never defeated American forces on the battlefield, as a North Vietnamese army officer once said, “that is true and it is also irrelevant.”
Displayed was the shell of a US Army M-48 tank. All of the salvageable pieces were stripped away. Some of the tourists chose to climb on for a picture op. I declined. While I can understand the point of view of those Vietnamese who fought here and destroyed that tank, I chose to honor the memory of the young Americans who likely died there.
It is this failure to recall the horrors and cost of war that drives us to repeat this mistake over and over.
For many Americans, the mention of Vietnam invokes memories of war and the protests against it. Body bags, casualty lists, draft dodgers, and war heroes. The loyalties of the shattered bodies in a body bag or on a battlefield are as irrelevant as who won.
The dead neither celebrate victory nor rest in defeat. Often the worst casualties of war are those who survive.
War is always the consequences of human frailties. No matter how we justify the need to end it with force, the start of it is always a failure of reason.
There is little nobility on a casualty-strewn battlefield. Severed limbs and shortened lives are not the best of humanity.
One cannot measure past decisions with the standards of the present, but you can use them to illustrate why we failed. And, more importantly, how we need learn from it.
The way to convince young men and women to kill the enemy-often other young men and women themselves-is to dehumanize them.
Turn them into demons and devils beneath human considerations.
To name them gooks, slopes, and chinks.
These are the faces of a gook
Combat is a mutual experience where each side demonizes the enemy and tries to kill them. Ideologies are irrelevant to bullets and bombs, and heroes are defined by the victors. It’s easy to kill an epithet, hard to kill a smiling boy named Nguyen, or John, or Le, or Joe.
What I have taken away from all these travels in Southeast Asia is that our misplaced focus on surface differences deters us from seeking commonality. Sitting in a restaurant in Saigon, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Hue, or Hanoi, looking out at the street, it appeared like many of the cities and towns of America as long as you focused on the shared human activity; taking kids to school, carrying home groceries, sipping beer with friends, kids playing in a park. If all you see are differences, you’ve missed the opportunity to see yourself in those very same people.
We are shaped by the geography of our birth yet still share the commonality of our humanity.
Our time in Viet Nam was a lost opportunity. Not caused by those who fought there, but by intolerance, hatred, and insensitivity of those there and in the US whose actions sent us on a collision course.
If anything, we should learn we don’t need to send B-52s or machine guns to free a people. Send tourists with fistfuls of dollars. Let countries and people make their own choices, then wave the flag of the entrepreneur.
Victory is certain.
Until you stand in the Viet Nam of 2018 you can never see how deep the tragedy of the Viet Nam of 1964-1975 really was.
Go there, you will not regret it.