It’s impossible for someone of my (advanced) age to visit Vietnam without being overwhelmed with memories of the Vietnam War. I visited Hanoi and the North in 2005 and found myself blindsided by flashbacks, looking out over iridescent green rice paddies dotted with women bent over working in their nón lá hats.
Forty years later, in the countryside, it still looks exactly the way it did on television in the late 60s, when we were first given a real look at modern warfare in this graceful land.
The day I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) this time, I was gazing out the balcony window of my hotel when I suddenly realized I was looking at a U.S. Army helicopter. Across the street was the War Remnants Museum and since I had a few hours free, I paid my $1 and wandered in. Two hours later, I was staggering through the “Tiger Cages” exhibit, War Atrocities hall, and the Agent Orange gallery, feeling like killing myself, when the museum closed and I was free to leave.
The next day I traveled to the village of Duc Tan in the Mekong Delta and met the group leader of Heifer’s project, Nguyen Van Hong. He’s 70 years old and a great local organizer. But in his youth, he spent 14 years, from 1962 until 1974, fighting as a guerrilla – including 1 1/2 years spent in one of the infamous prisons I’d read about in the museum. In other words, he was Viet Cong and our enemy.
Nguyen weighs about 100 pounds and is frail as can be, but despite United States Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay’s promise that “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age,” the people of Vietnam had been fighting for independence for thirty years before we arrived, and I can only imagine the tenacity and fierceness with which they battled.
Today, Vietnam is still a communist country and has been since 1975 when Saigon fell. (Which is ironic, since the Vietnamese are phenomenal entrepreneurs and terrific business people.) Every project that Heifer runs here has to include the government, so that’s a bit complicated, but when compared to “free” Cambodia next door, Vietnam looks like a model of transparency and efficiency.
The Vietnamese are elegant, graceful and lovely – particularly the women who seem to float down the street on their bicycles and look effortlessly chic, even in the fields. The men especially are also a little bit wacky. I never heard as much laughing as I did when I was in Vietnam; the people love to cut up, joke and laugh almost as much as they love to eat – and that’s saying something.
It’s a beautiful country; and even though I hear that as Americans, we’re never supposed to apologize (thanks, Mitt) here’s a statistic that should give you some pause: Between 1961 and 1967, the U.S. Air Force sprayed 20 million gallons of concentrated herbicides over 6 million acres of crops and trees. As of 2006, the Vietnamese government estimates that there are over 4 million victims of dioxin poisoning (the U.S. denies a causal link).
As you watch this peaceful video below, consider this: More than 3 million Americans served in the Vietnam War. By war’s end, 58,220 American soldiers had been killed, more than 150,000 had been wounded, and at least 21,000 had been permanently disabled.The average age of U.S. troops killed in Vietnam was 23 years.
Vietnam lost over 1.5 million.