I have been procrastinating getting my thoughts out on the Vietnam War for a number of reasons, but primarily because I’m still trying to process my thoughts and feelings about the country and what happened here not long ago and in many of your lifetimes. Having spent time in Hanoi, the Communist capital of Vietnam, as well as Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of the South Vietnamese Democratic Republic, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the American War – what Americans call the Vietnam War. I had very little knowledge of the war prior to coming to Vietnam and had all intentions of immersing myself fully into the country’s recent past. What I found, however, is that the war, or traces of the war, are almost completely gone – on the surface at least. The Vietnamese largely view the war as one of many that took place over thousands of years, and they are a resilient people who move on. Of course, when you dig a little deeper there are still deep seated sentiments among the South Vietnamese who supported the Democratic Republic and have family members that fled to the United States as a result of their partiality towards the U.S.
A Short History Lesson on the War
If you don’t know much about the war, here is my summary of the war. Please note these are solely my observations and takeaways and by no means a comprehensive overview of the war.
- The Vietnam War was essentially a civil war between the Communist North Vietnam, whose capital was in Hanoi, and the Democratic Republic of South Vietnam, whose capital was in Saigon
- The North Vietnamese government (People’s Army of Vietnam) along with communist guerrilla troops in the South (Viet Kong, also known as the National Liberation Front) were fighting to reunify Vietnam as a continuation of the first Indochina war, which initially separated the two
- The North Vietnamese army was supported by other communist allies including the Soviet Union and China while the South Vietnamese army was backed by non-communist allies including France (who largely backed the first Indochina war and led to the initial separation between the North and South), the U.S., Australia, Thailand and South Korea
- Having recently come out of successfully reunifying and rebuilding Europe after World War II, the U.S. felt a global duty to contain and stop the spread of communism (and maintain their stronghold on certain economic holdings) – with U.S. military advisors arriving as early as 1950 (even though the war did not officially start until 1955)
- American involvement continued to rise, with peak deployment during 1968 with the U.S. relying heavily on traditional tactics such as search and destroy operations, combat units, ground forces, artillery and airstrikes as well as chemical warfare via Agent Orange, meant to ‘destroy enemy crops and disrupt the food supply’ and force the guerrilla fighting to stop
- Given the U.S. was entering a civil war, millions of innocent people were killed in the process to no avail (1-3+ Million Vietnamese died during the war in addition to 250,000 Cambodians, 50,000 Laotians, and 58,000 U.S. service members) and 3 million Vietnamese are suffering illnesses as a result of Agent Orange exposure, which transfers from generation to generation through genetics and breast milk
- Ultimately, after twenty years of fighting and billions of dollars spent, the U.S. aimed to transfer the task of fighting the communists to the South Vietnamese themselves and signed a peace agreement in 1973 with the North Vietnamese (the Paris Peace Accord). However, soon after, the fighting for unification continued
- Eventually, the South Vietnamese Army fell during the capture of Saigon in 1975 when the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City
- At that point, former South Vietnamese supporters fled to the U.S. or neighboring countries if they could – particularly anyone who had supported the U.S. cause
Experiencing the War in Vietnam
The few war-related sites that do remain in Vietnam tend to be extremely gimmicky, and I chose not to go to the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Kong’s base of operations for a few of their largest offensives took place, after hearing quite a few negative reviews and the fact that they (very oddly) have a shooting range (!) for visitors. Maybe I’m the only one that thinks it is a sick joke to go to a war site and shoot machine guns for fun but I did not want to take part. I did, however, visit the Independence Palace (also known as the Reunification Palace) in Ho Chi Minh City, which served as a White House of sorts for the President of South Vietnam during the war and the site of the end of the war during the Fall of Saigon, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates in April 1975. The palace has been, somewhat oddly, preserved just as it was left.
I also had the opportunity to visit the War Remnants Museum, which includes just that – remnants of the war including U.S. military equipment (tanks, helicopters, bombs) as well as a photography exhibit with graphic photos from the war and victims of Agent Orange and other chemicals used, such as napalm and phosphorus bombs. The museum is heavily one-sided and contains a heavy dose of anti-American propaganda but you do get a sense for the horrors of the war including the children affected.
The most interesting conversation I had about the war was with a 30-year old American-Vietnamese friend of a friend, who now lives in Ho Chi Minh City. His mother came from a family of high ranking generals in the South Vietnamese Army. She fell in love with an American soldier during the war. They fled to the U.S. after the war, where my friend’s friend was raised on the East Coast. Despite his parents’ wishes, he came to Vietnam in 2014 to learn more about his family’s past and loved it so much he decided to stay. He has now been living in Ho Chi Minh for a few years and is dating a Vietnamese woman. When speaking to a few American Vietnamese friends whose parents fled to the U.S. after the war, the majority have confirmed their parents will never again return to Vietnam. It’s not the Vietnam they knew and loved growing up, and they would still be on-watch by the Communist government. The sad part is it has divided families for generations to come. One of my fellow American Vietnamese Remote Year participants met his grandmother for the very first time during his stay here. While they can’t speak to each other, they have grown close in the short time we have visited.
U.S. and Vietnam Relations Today
After 20 years of severed ties, then U.S. President Bill Clinton announced the formal normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam in July 1995. Since then, the two countries have deepened their political and economic exchanges. According to Wikipedia, ’78% of Vietnamese people view the U.S. favorably’ as of 2015. Overall, this was the sentiment that I have felt during my entire time in Vietnam.
Ken Burns is coming out with a new documentary on Vietnam at the end of this year, which I very much look forward to watching and learning from.
A Gilded Globe’s 5 Conclusions on the Vietnam War
- The U.S. had good intentions going into the war
- The U.S. should have left the war much, much sooner (it spanned three presidencies)
- Project Ranch Hand – aka spreading of Agent Orange to 20% of Vietnam’s Forests – is a pure atrocity and one I hope is never repeated again
- Everyone who died in vain during the war are the real loss in this situation – not the fact that the U.S. lost the war against communism
- The Vietnamese people are incredibly resilient and strong – I am absolutely floored by the kindness, generosity and strength they have shown during my short time in Vietnam despite the recency of the war
Next up, my long-time-in-the-making post about Sapa – northern Vietnam’s tribal hill country.