The Vietnam War as I knew it only existed in textbooks. The conflict was an existential, unfathomable (at least before the Iraq War) concept. Vietnam was to me more a descriptive adjective than an actual place. Even when I became friends with several of the multitude of Vietnamese-origin Texans, I never seemed to put two and two together. It wasn't as if I didn't know they were related; it just never became an active part of my daily intellectual wanderings.
Until I finally traveled to Vietnam.
I don't come from a long line of military folks. My father is Turkish (and therefore served mandatorily in the Turkish armed forces not the American ones) and, to my knowledge, few people in my American family served for Uncle Sam in that way. If they did, they sure don't talk about it! The notable exception to this is my cousin Vince who recently conVinced (pun intended) the high brass to pin a star on his shoulder (congrats again Vince!). Long story short, I have great admiration for our military heritage... we just weren't really a big part of it.
At first Vietnam seemed like any of the other SE Asian countries. Friendly people. Sticky heat. Motorbikes everwhere. Then I started seeing a few hammers and sickles. Lots of red... everywhere. The old GI bars in Saigon, now officially called Ho Chi Minh City much to the chagrin of most southerners with whom we spoke, and the ubiquitous army green Vietnamese flag hats got more noticeable. The lingering resentment towards the always suspicious north (access to blogging, and probably many other, websites are restricted in the south), and the US who made the conflict uncomprehensibly more destructive, seemed to add a layer of unease that belied the endless smiling faces.
"Are they ok with us now?" wondered Lauren's dad over Skype before our flight to SGN. Pssh, we thought, that was forever ago! It's fiiiiine. Actually, the man who served in the reserves during the war and generally lived through those turbulent times in the US may have been more perceptive than we thought... maybe he was on to something?
Alas and thankfully, no. The Vietnamese are amazing and opened their arms to us, indulging our increasingly bold questions as we delved deeper into this part of America's and Vietnam's dark past. "Some of the old people who lived through the war may not want to talk to you," Thien told us as he showed us through the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the site of some of the worst continuous aerial bombing that forced entire villages to live underground. "But most of the younger people especially are really curious about the US."
The same guide also told us what had to be a candidate for the 'most heartwarming story of the year' award. Harvey, a 60+ year old Texan, served in Vietnam during the war. At the time units were distributed throughout the south, tasked with living in small villages for often months at a time in villagers' homes. Almost four decades later, his health beginning to wane, Harvey returned to Vietnam with a bag undoubtedly full of white walking shoes, flowery shirts and a poloroid... of him standing with a young boy in front of a hut. As Thien whipped out the photo from his wallet he told us about when Harvey asked him to find that boy. He'd really like to see him again; unfortunately he didn't know the name of the boy, much less the name of the village. Being a military man, he knew the approximate location on a map, but that was it. Long story short, Thien was able to channel his inner Sherlock and, after several days of non-stop searching, finally happened upon a mother carrying her small child in front of their house.
"Do you know this boy?" Thien asked for the ump-teenth time, pointing to the shirtless figure on the right.
"Sure," she answered without a pause. "That's my father. He's in the rice fields right now but let me get him."
Neither Harvey nor the boy in the photo remembered anything about that day. There had been lots of villages and lots of white people roaming around at that time. Neither spoke a word of the other's language, but when they finally did meet, I imagine the handshake was earthshatteringly epic... or maybe it was a hug?
I still don't really know the dates, the offensives, or much about the intricacies of battle in the '60s and '70s. Nonetheless, I learned a lot about what we call the Vietnam War, very little of which could ever be learned from a textbook. It was a dark period in world history, but kudos to the Vietnamese for welcoming us and countless other American tourists each year just a few short decades after... well, you can read about that more in the history books and, better yet, visit Vietnam!