Final Thoughts on Vietnam and the American War

As you’ll probably have realized by now, I spent last week in Vietnam, managing to take in everything from debating industrial policy with the IMF in the Hanoi Hilton to discussing survival strategies with lottery ticket sellers in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City (working for an NGO can be amazing sometimes).

Everywhere you go, the ‘American War’ hangs unspoken over a foreigner’s experience of visiting Vietnam – the historic names like Danang and Dien Bien Phu; the Mekong Delta and Saigon are now holiday destinations, NGO project locations or people’s homes, rather than battlefields. ‘What did you do in the war?’ is the question you dare not ask whenever you talk to anyone over 45, because no-one ever mentions it, scarcely even to long-term foreign residents. Even when they are married to them – our country director in Vietnam, Steve Price Thomas, could not work out why his Vietnamese wife Hoa was so anxious when they were stuck in a traffic jam next to Heathrow, until she described the Hanoi air raids of her childhood.

war remnantsBut then we visited the ‘War Remnants Museum’ in Saigon, renamed from ‘The Museum of American War Atrocities’ after the normalization of US-Vietnam relations in 1995. Room after harrowing room record the deaths of some 3 million Vietnamese (vs 58,000 Americans), and the maiming of countless others by Agent Orange – malformed babies are still being born due to the Dioxin dropped on the country 40 years ago. I’ve chosen the least upsetting photos, believe me. Foreigners and locals rub shoulders at the museum, there’s no security – are Vietnamese not angry, or is the trauma so deep that only psychic burial can allow the country to bustle forward? In an individual, my psychotherapist wife would probably say that level of repression is bound to do them damage, but maybe as a country it is necessary to function.

Gangs of bubbly Vietnamese schoolkids were industriously photographing the exhibits and far from confronting me, they came up to ask what I thought of the war remnants 2exhibition, and if they have their photograph taken with me, in front of the grainy images of their country’s purgatory. I didn’t know what to say to them. Disturbing end to a brilliant visit.

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4 Responses to “Final Thoughts on Vietnam and the American War”
  1. Ken Smith

    A very interesting post. I’m intrigued by the contrasts between post-war recovery in Vietnam and the Second World war.
    Would a foreign visitor to Franfurt or Tokyo or Rome in the 70’s , 30 years after the war ending have experienced the same feelings ? (maybe in Moscow, Warsaw or Kiev they would) and what can we learn about development from the contrasts ?

  2. KD Le

    Interesting questions raised! I’m Vietnamese but dare not claim to always understand my country fellows.

    What can ‘we – the Vietnamese’ do? Life moves on so we have to move on too. This sounds a sensible surviving strategy – forward looking!

    My colleague who used to work with agent orange victim families told me what she heard. They didn’t forget, as they suffer it everyday still, but what could they do when they meet their ‘enemies’ again?

    There is a saying in Vietnamese, roughly translated as “punish the one who runs away, not the one who comes back”.

    Another friend said they probably just accept their fate.

    Personally, I don’t know what I would feel if I were them.

    Sadly, not everything ‘development’ here now is forward looking.

  3. Ahmed Khan

    I am sure after 40 years, someone will be writing all this about Afghanistan! Very little comes out from the fighting between Taliban and the Western forces. Americans and the Western armies do not learn from the history. War is a curse for everyone.

  4. hong nguyen

    That’s because the children was brainwashed, including me because what they teach in the history book is the america invade viet nam and we fight back. Everything we found in the internet is lies and they block the trurth. also the sensitivre word like “viet cong” and stuff will not be said or shown anywhere.The whole generation is hidden from the trurth. The one who tell the trurth will be in prison for “anti communism”. Only our parents and grandparents know . But only some people tell their kids the real history because it was too awful and make us thought about losing our country, South Viet Nam, and currently living with the enemies. I didn’t know it until i study abroad in America. It’s so damn sad to think about

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