If you’re an American looking to go travelling in Vietnam, don’t worry about getting a frosty reception because of the legacy of the war. The Vietnamese have an abiding warmth for American visitors that will soon make you feel right at home
Canadians, who are among the least patriotic people of any nation on the planet, suddenly become more Canadian than they have ever been in their lives when they travel abroad. They stitch the maple leaf to every bag and garment they own. But it’s not out of any sense of Canadian national pride.
They just don’t want to be mistaken for Americans.
It is rumoured, though I’ve never seen it myself, that Americans sometimes try to pass themselves off as Canadian. Which, I think entails carrying a hockey stick with them everywhere and saying ‘Aye’ a lot. In addition to the prominent display of the Canadian flag on their person.
It never occurred to me to hide the fact that I was an American in southeast Asia. Certainly, when I lived in South Korea, it wasn’t a problem at all: many–especially the older generation–feel they owe America a great debt for saving them from the fate of their northern kinsmen, and McArthur’s landing at Inchon is still remembered as a banner day. In Thailand and Laos, they couldn’t really care less. Despite that, I still felt of a bit of trepidation entering Vietnam for the first time. After all, my country did, sort of, well…um. Murder babies, burn houses to the ground, napalm vast regions of forest, and contaminate countless women with Agent Orange leading to sever life-long birth defects for their children. All in the name of freedom and democracy, and to counter the evil threat of a world dominated by Communism.
It surprises me that Vietnamese people don’t know this, but the American psyche has been profoundly shaped by, what we call, the Vietnam war. ( They, of course, call it ‘The American War,” which is another surprise I got when I arrived.) I actually meet Vietnamese people, on a regular basis, who say, “Did you know there was a war between our two countries? Did you know that?” As if we could forget the defining event of an entire generation. Without Vietnam, there would have been no ‘sixties.’ No draft, no draft dodgers, no protest, no protest music, no hippies, no yippies–just a lot of people taking LSD and complaining about their parents. And when Americans talk about the war in Iraq, the phrase, ‘Another Vietnam’ is uttered again and again.
This is one of the reasons that I was fascinated by Vietnam. No other country in the world figured so decisively in life as I knew it growing up as an American.
“Did you know that there was a war between America and Vietnam?” Hell, yes.
I really wanted to see the country for myself.
I was working in Thailand as a writer/researcher for the Travelfish website when my boss started E-mailing me asking if I knew anybody who could cover Vietnam. I diligently set about approaching everyone I met on the road, if they seemed to be in the least qualified: they needed to be very familiar with the country, speak some Vietnamese, be able to write, be able to commit to an assignment and deliver. I talked to a lot of people, but no one could really do it. Travelfish couldn’t find anyone to do it. Finally, I E-mailed my boss—“Uh…maybe I could do it.”
It didn’t take long before I was on a flight from Bangkok to Hanoi.
And on the flight, truth be told, I was thinking…During the 1960’s, even other Americans called soldiers in Vietnam ‘baby killers.’ What would the Vietnamese think of me?
There’s a short answer, and a long answer. The short answer is: they love me.
The long answer gets into some shades of grey, but not nearly as many as you might think. A lot of people, especially Europeans, ask me how I am received as an American in Vietnam. Probably because, at the moment, most of them are pretty pissed off at the United States, and they imagine the Vietnamese, who have even more reason to be pissed off, would give every American they meet and earful at any opportunity.
But, here lies the irony. The only hassle I get for being an American comes from Europeans. I met two Brits in Da Nang who took it upon themselves to blame every American they met for everything the country has done in recent years. Just being American was enough to make me responsible for every wrong decision made by my government. Even though I voted for the other guy. Even though I disagree, personally, with everything the Bush administration has done–I am somehow culpable since I am an American.
These two particular guys were complete idiots. I mean, they insisted that the United States had no decisive role in the outcome of World War II. But it does define a general trend. I’ve had French guys rail on, not at me, but in general, about how Bush should have been hung alongside Sadaam Hussein. I understand. They need to vent. They seldom meet Americans, and when they do, they feel like it’s an opportunity to ask, “Why, why, why? Why, in God’s name, does your country do these things?”
And, these are also the people that ask me, “What’s it like to be an American in Vietnam? How do they treat you?”
Well. Very, very, very well. Surprisingly well. Way better than I expected.
When I first came to Vietnam I took a tour of the DMZ out of Hue. The tour guide talked about the war, and I was surprised to realize something, for the first time. In America, Vietnam is a great shame, the war we lost, and probably never should have fought. But in Vietnam, it’s the war they won! That had never occurred to me. It’s hard for any Vietnamese person, north or south, to not see that as a feather in their cap.
However, it gets more complicated.
Many Southerners fought with the Americans. (And, I might add, the Australians, the South Koreans, and whoever else helped out. That historical fact seems to get lost in the sauce.) For those on the southern side, Vietnam’s ‘victory’ is a very, very mixed blessing. It did mean independence, which is what they were striving for. But after the war, an iron curtain descended between those who fought for the south and those who fought for the north. If you had sided with the Americans, that was it. In order to get any kind of paying job in the tightly-controlled communist economy, you had to prove your party credentials. If your father, your uncle, anyone in your family had fought for the south, you were barred from advancing. And this situation persists to this day. You can’t get a job at a bank, or get into a good school, even if your qualified, unless your family has the right pedigree. Many of the older cyclo and ‘xe om’ drivers you see in Vietnam has a story to tell. They may have been teachers, engineers, businessmen, linguists even. But they, or someone in their family, wound up on the losing side. And they have been paying for it ever since. Many of these guys wound up in ‘re-education’ camps for anywhere from 2 to 10 years after the war.
Now, here’s the thing. The United States committed to these guys. They basically promised to establish a democratic nation here, and fight side-by-side with them to make it happen. But in 1972, the US gave up and left, leaving the Southern Vietnamese to fight the war on their own. For three years, they fought that losing battle, and finally, inevitably, lost.
I have asked these guys, these guys that fought in the war, and suffered because they lost it, “Aren’t you angry that the US left you in the lurch like that?”
But they aren’t. They appreciate that the US tried. But they basically feel that if that they couldn’t win the war on their own, it was their own fault, not that of the US.
“America, number one!” That’s what I hear, more often than not, in Southern Vietnam.
Now, the north is different. Many northerns sided with the winning side. And benefited from it. How do they feel about an American, the enemy, showing up in their midst? Some of them had loved ones that were actually killed by Americans. Wouldn’t they be resentful?
Truth be told, a few still are. But they keep a low profile. By and large, the reaction an American receives is more along the lines of, “Hello, American! We beat your ass, now, didn’t we? Welcome back, all is forgiven. Have some rice wine, it’s on me.”
This is what people underestimate when gauging the Vietnamese people’s reaction to Americans. They fought off the Chinese after they’d been in the country for 900 years. Then the French, and even briefly, the Japanese. Handing America it’s hat ended 1000 years of domination and oppression by outside influences. It was quickly replaced by domination and oppression from their own government, but still. The threat of ‘American imperialism’ figured prominently in the minds of Northern Vietnamese, whether it was real or imagined. Being able to accept us back into the country puts them in a position of power. We arrive in Vietnam, hat in hand (the very hat they handed to us years ago) and they feel sort of a sense of satisfaction upon seeing us again.
If only certain other nations of the world could be as forgiving as quickly as the Vietnamese. Any group of people with an 800-year old axe to grind would do well to take a lesson from the folks here.
To be sure, northerners are often more aloof, and even cockier, than their southern counterparts. Many of them are living off the unearned prestige and advantages of their lineage, and taking unfair advantage of it. This makes a lot of southerners resentful. And it is this battle, not the one against the Americans or the French or the Chinese or the Japanese, that occupies the thoughts of the average Vietnamese person. The ‘communist’ north is worried about keeping it’s hold on power in a changing world. The ‘democratically inclined’ in the south are struggling to make ends meet while looking for an opening to seize the advantage, which never seems to come. Meanwhile, the younger generation seem to largely accept the status quo, and make no signs of strongly supporting one side or the other. There has been no Tienanmen Square in Vietnam, and there’s no indication that there will be any time soon.
I remember reading an article about the recovery from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in the US. There is a large, Vietnamese community just outside the city. It was the first to recover from the devastation. They didn’t wait for government aid to come through. They just rebuilt and reopened, and found new ways to make business. A local Vietnamese-American politician was quoted saying that, while he mourned the loss of life brought on by the hurricane, for the Vietnamese people in New Orleans, it was just a ‘mosquito bump.’ It itches, but it’s nothing serious.
It’s almost impossible to believe, given how prominently the war in Vietnam figures in American life, but the fact remains–for the Vietnamese, it was just an annoying rash that they got over. They seem to see their situation in terms of fate and destiny more than anything else. It was their fate to be dominated, and it was their destiny to overcome it. An American, from a country with it’s puny ten-year war here, just doesn’t really amount to all that much.
Besides which, America is way cool. It’s music, it’s popular culture, are emulated here as much as in the rest of the world. And we’re ever so rich. I can see dollar signs dancing in people’s eyes when they look at me sometimes. Not that they are trying to rip me off, they’re just thinking, “Ah, it must be great to have money.” I keep trying to explain to them that I’m broke most of the time and living from paycheck to paycheck, but they just laugh and assume I’m joking.
Vietnamese society has a tradition of accommodating any ‘stranger in their midst.’ There are rip-off artists all along the tourist trail, to be sure, but the minute you step off it, you’re more likely to be wined and dined than swindled. And this goes moreso for Americans. We’re an old friend returning for a visit, or an old enemy come to make peace. Either way, we’re greeted with a warm welcome