Vietnam has held a deep fascination for me for a very long time and my hope for my recent visit was that I would come away at last with an understanding of this incredibly beautiful and deeply complex country.In short, well no, I didn’t, but oh, am I glad I went!

We travelled in central and northern Vietnam, eight days of traveling didn’t allow the time to visit the southern portion…so I have great excuse to return some day.Along the way we visited mausoleums and temples, cities and villages and were hosted in a private home in a small village for homemade pho, Coca Cola,tea and an impromptu concert of Vietnamese antiphonal folk singing. We biked, we walked, and drove.We met some wonderful people and were immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of this remarkably intriguing place.

My earliest political activism had been protesting against the war in Vietnam as a young girl. We had entered the country in support of South Vietnam, then in civil war against the North. The rationale for our entering the conflict was the, later debunked, Domino Theory.The North was Communist and the theory held that if Communism prevailed, one by one surrounding countries would also become Communist, falling like dominoes.In the process of waging war here we lost many American lives, took many more Vietnamese lives and in the end we lost the war itself and our confidence in ourselves as an invincible military power.

It was the first war that our country was embroiled in since the beginning of the age of television and before the concept of “embedding” reporters was conceived. Intrepid reporters travelled and reported with unfettered access, limited only by the extent of their personal courage …and raw, frightening footage was aired nightly on the television news.

And it happened that my arrival in Vietnam coincided with two national holidays, the birthday of Buddha (who in Vietnam is female! ) and Liberation day, celebrating liberation from America in what is called in Vietnam ‘The American War”. It was an unexpected shock to think of us, Americans, as one of a string of occupiers of this small country, the Chinese, the French, the Japanese…and us. Even though I had protested the war, and would again today, I realized in my heart of hearts I think of us as the “good guys” and that we were there only to ,misguidedly to be sure, “help”.

I wondered how my husband and I might be received as Americans arriving in the midst of celebration of liberation from us.

I needn’t have worried, we were met with open arms.

If I were to try to characterize the essence of the people we met (a fool’s errand to try to characterize a people,but here goes nothing!) , the words that come to mind are warm, resilient, dignified, pragmatic and forgiving.This country has been through so much in its history. A 1000 year record of their history was destroyed by various occupiers before modern times leaving a curious and tragic collective post traumatic memory lapse that can only be met with fortitude.A visit to the Fine Art Museum in Hanoi reflects this thousand year absence in artifact and art. It is chilling.Truly.

The Vietnam that I met is a country of stark contrasts. I know, people say that about an awful lot of places, but trust me, it really is. This Communist country is a hotbed of Capitalism. New development and factories and resorts springing up everywhere where once all was rice field and yet the rice fields still go on and on. The country’s currency ,the dong,is so devalued that there aren’t even any coins, 10,000 dong equals 50 cents.Clay bricks are hoarded by every villager as a hedge against inflation and the American dollar is welcomed everywhere.

Old style Communism is evident everywhere as well. The finest building/s in every city and hamlet belong to the government, painted in colonial French yellow with bright red contrast. Propaganda signs abound, on the government buildings, in parks, on city streets and they are done in paint, posters,banners and flowers. They entreat people to limit population, stay away from drugs, revere the government, idealize the workers and to be happy and content.It is against the law not to fly the red flag with gold star of the government from every home, every shop, every boat. In some municipalities, Hoi An being one, it is against the law not to have a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in the interior of the main room of any building. Loudspeakers mounted high on poles are in every residential section of every city and village.If the village is too small for electricity,why then generators are used . Each morning at 5:30 am and each evening at 6pm, propaganda is broadcast to the populace for one half hour. Vietnamese joke they have 800 newspapers and one editor. The news is uniformly the same, upbeat and broadcasting the great success of the government, the workers and policies. Real news therefore is spread neighbor by neighbor with the confusing results to be expected by the equivalent of the children’s party game “telephone” with stories morphing along the way. While we were there there was an enormous fire over 40,000 hectares in size surrounding the Hai Van (Ocean Clouds) Pass , a long and beautiful road through the mountains connecting Danang to Hue which we had traversed a few days before. We heard three completely different reasons for the fire: a lightening strike, an accidental fire started by one of the people living (illegally) in the forests on the mountains and a previously unexploded American bomb exploding in the heat. Any one of these things could be true…or none of them… absolutely no way to know.

And then old fashioned Capitalism in full swing; in addition to the prodigious building mentioned earlier (all by well connected private individuals), commerce is everywhere … storefronts,sidewalks, streets…everywhere.. We saw numbers of very expensive cars in the cities including Bentleys and Rolls.Wealthy Vietnamese send their children to fancy private schools. And unlike our capitalistic society there is no economic safety net; no Social Security, Unemployment Insurance,Medicare. We were told unemployment is low because if you are not employed you die.Period.

And none of this really explains the Vietnam I met…the beauty of the rock formations in Halong Bay that you can blissfully lose yourself in, the freshness of the food, the lack of cynicism in so many of the people, the flowers, the dignity of the women and men we met in the small villages we biked through.And did I mention the food? Oh my Lord in heaven, the food!!

So many words I have written here and I have only barely covered any of the experience.It was extraordinary.

Just go. If you possibly can someday, just go.

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15 Responses to Vietnam

  1. StarStruk says:

    More is coming, right? Food! Bicycling in Vietnam! Clothing! You are so good to share…

  2. I probably should :)… I just hardly know where to begin! Did I mention the food?!?!

  3. Karen Dervin says:

    What an amazing experience! It is on my bucket list- I will make it there someday.

  4. Jeanne Leonard says:

    To say that your piece is breathtaking is an understatement. My ex-husband was a VietNam vet. He was an engineer who was drafted immediately upon graduating from Syracuse University. We married, just before he left for the war. It was the height of the war and a time of no deferments. He was placed in the infantry, even though he was legally blind without his glasses. We were so scared, as were all of the men and women touched by this war. The times were awful, as you describe. It is so wonderful to know that they are really trying to heal the wounds, that peace can truly happen. I do believe, though, that there is something inherent in the Vietnamese character that can bring this about. Although there is some forced positivity, there must be real positivity in their culture and in their being to welcome Americans with open arms. Thank you for all these thoughts as your mind drifts back to your recent experiences. I look forward to more.
    Hugs and love,

  5. Jeanne, I didn’t know that! I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you to be so newly wed and send him off to this far away war! Wow. And I agree about the Vietnamese character, I don’t know why but some combination of things, Buddhism? Ultimately prevailing against so many invaders? A culture that values ties with neighbors even higher than ties with family ? Something else? seems to make this embrace possible for the people we encountered. And it really didn’t feel forced…and I wonder if we Americans could be capable of the same in their shoes?

    • Jeanne Leonard says:

      It is all so far away now. However, your blog sending me thinking about things so long ago. I am still amazed that this country is now so open and peaceful. How wonderful that you were able to be there. Can’t wait to hear more.

  6. My dad was a Vietnam Vet. This was very thought-provoking and I appreciate you writing about it!

  7. Betty Wallace says:

    Welcome home, Chris–
    In the midst of a variety of things (some of which you are already aware of and some you probably aren’t), I never got to my computer in time to wish you “Bon Voyage and Safe Travels.” I’ve been thinking a lot about you while you’ve been gone though and sending long distance prayers for a wonderful journey for you both. Sounds like the trip was a marvelous one. I’m so glad for you. Thanks so much for share your experiences. I’m eager to hear more about them.
    With love and hugs to you both,

  8. Thanks so much Betty!! Drop me a line and let me know what is going on for you okay? Love,Chris

  9. Suzanne says:

    You make even this timid traveler want to take the next plane! What a tantalizing, satisfying glimpse of an intriguing land, people and time. Thanks for taking me along.

  10. Michelle Aguillon says:

    Thanks, Chris, for directing me to your blog to read about your travel experiences in Vietnam. Wonderfully captured. Thanks again for the insight. I will be sure to report back to you after I go in October. Love to you always, and peace….Meesh

    • Oh I am glad! I really can’t wait to hear about your experience there and insights on a part of the country I have yet / need to explore. It is a small country but there is so much there to take in! I know you will have a wonderful and soul satisfying trip Meesh! Love, Chris

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