I told the taxi driver who was taking me from the airport to my small hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter that I was a little anxious about how the Vietnamese I would be encountering would react to me as an American.
His only response was, “A lot has changed in Vietnam.”
During my five days in Hanoi at the beginning of December 2012, I discovered that the cabbie was right. The American War, as they refer to the conflict, is ancient history for those born after 1973, something their parents talked about at times, but not part of their experience.
I was the one who had some emotional baggage to unpack. I was born in 1947 which made me draft age in the late 1960s when the fighting in Vietnam was as intense as the protest against it in this country. I and my male friends were really scared because some of our classmates were coming home in body bags. Six of us, for example, were pall bearers for one of our best friends, Dennis Belonger, who was killed in action in Vietnam. There was no volunteer army in those days. Any one of us could be drafted and come home the same way.
We were also hearing and reading a lot in those days about how misguided our whole involvement in Southeast Asia was from the very beginning. My father, who served in both World War II and in the Korean War, at least could feel he was fighting against fascism and then against totalitarian communism.
“Where’s the nobility in throwing our lives away,” most of us wondered, “in a conflict about which history may judge Americans to be the bad guys?”
On my second night in Hanoi, a young man approached me as I was enjoying fried rice and a Tiger beer. “Where you from?” he asked. At least half of the conversations I had with the locals during those five days began that way.
“America,” I answered, feeling reassured by his smile.
“Good place, America,” he said in pretty good English.
Toward the end of our conversation, I admitted to him, as I had to my taxi driver, that I carried with me some bad memories about the war. He said I sounded like his father who didn’t want to talk about it much and had suffered from nightmares during the 1970s. As I was leaving the restaurant he said, “I hope your time here will give you good memories to replace the bad ones.”
Vietnam’s leadership doesn’t want their citizens to forget the war. Red banners in some of the parks announced celebrations this month of the 40th anniversary (Jan. 27, 1973) of American soldiers lowering the stars and stripes at Tan Son Nhat Airport, ending U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Likewise, the Vietnam Military History Museum displays captured American tanks and airplanes. The most striking display is a huge outdoor collage composed of wreckage from B-52 bombers shot down by the North Vietnamese.
Today’s Vietnamese seem to have gained self-confidence and pride from that war in which an army of sandal-wearing, rice-eating soldiers forced the most powerful nation on Earth to go home with its tail between its legs. Beyond that, there seems to be little animosity toward America.
It seems to be like the time I visited Lexington and Concord with my kids. I felt proud that my heritage as an American included the 13 colonies defeating the greatest colonial power of the time, but I felt nothing negative against Great Britain. The emphasis in the remembering in both cases is on the positive.
On several occasions young people, like the man in the restaurant, would approach me and start up a conversation with the usual “where you from?” They said they wanted to practice their English because everybody knows that is the language you have to speak to make money in a global market.
But some of the interaction, I’m sure, was also motivated by an inherent friendliness and openness to the world. The best example in my short stay occurred during a pre-wedding gift-giving ceremony right across the narrow street from my little hotel’s front door. There was a tent set up on the sidewalk and young men in suits were carrying fancy presents in a kind of procession accompanied by six young women in traditional formal dress.
I got out on the street as fast as I could and started taking pictures at what I judged to be a respectful distance. Through my camera lens, I saw one of the young women motioning towards me. I pointed to myself as if to say, “You mean me?” She nodded and I crossed the street. With big smiles some of the young women escorted me inside the tent with the family, found me a stool to sit on and offered me a cup of tea and a cookie.
On another occasion, I was doing my penguin waddle with my cane in the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, when one of the staff members decided I needed some assistance. They didn’t have a wheelchair so he improvised by grabbing a desk chair with wheels and pushed me around the whole museum.
Compared to the U.S. or even Thailand, the residents of Hanoi are way behind in terms of economic development. Motorbikes outnumber cars 10-1. Traffic jams, a sign of prosperity in Southeast Asia, are rare in Vietnam’s capital city. Nevertheless I witnessed a sense of optimism and an energy that embodied what we would call “the American Dream.”
Restaurateurs would be out in the narrow street aggressively trying to lure motorbike riders over to the sidewalk to buy a bowl of their Pho Ga, a kind of chicken noodle soup. Vendors would approach me hawking everything from donuts to cigarette lighters. Many seemed to be saying, “I may be driving a Honda motorbike now but someday I’ll own a Beamer!” How “American.”
Another thing that impressed me was how the Vietnamese love and even revere Ho Chi Minh. Instead of scattering his ashes around the country as he had wished, they embalmed Uncle Ho, as they call him, after he died and set him up on public display in a mausoleum. All Abe Lincoln got from us was a statue!
Nguyen Xuan Khuong was a staff person at the hotel who doubled as my motorbike taxi driver. Riding on the back of Nguyen’s bike was more fun and scary than anything I’ve experienced at Great America. Few of Hanoi’s street intersections are regulated by traffic lights or even stop signs, so what the bike riders do is kind of weave through the confluence until they get to the other side of the intersection. No one really stops. It’s like taking on a moving slalom course. Yet in five days I only witnessed one accident.
What is interesting about Vietnam these days is the juxtaposition of the old and the new. I saw Mercedes Benz SUVs trying to get through narrow streets clogged with pedestrians, rickshaws called xiclos, and vendors pushing their carts. Most people don’t own cars, but everyone seems to have access to the Internet. I saw fashion-conscious women wearing high-priced miniskirts, tights and boots purchased from stores in downtown Hanoi with names like Gucci as well as young women dressed in beautiful traditional silk tunics with slits up each side, worn over baggy silk pants.
In this country we have to go to museums to observe how people lived in the “old days.” In Hanoi I was able to see the old and the new existing side by side.
As I boarded my Air Asia flight back to Bangkok, I realized that what the taxi driver had said about Vietnam having changed was indeed true, which allowed this baby boomer to replace some bad memories with many good ones.