Good morning, Vietnam!!

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.

A Vietnamese graveyard in a rice field.

Vietnam lost over 1.5 million.

Peace, y’all.

Categories: Heifer International, Hunger, Inspiration, Photography, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments

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33 thoughts on “Good morning, Vietnam!!

  1. Being of a similar age, your post on Vietnam takes my breath away. I still remember watching on television the rescues of children from Saigon and the troops coming home. Your photos are a powerful reminder of the resilience of the Vietnamese people.

    • Thanks, Karli — it’s amazing how well Americans who grew up at that time remember Vietnam and the war. It was tragic but at least everybody was in it together — meaning, the draft made it a war potentially every young man would have to serve in. The tragedy of our all-volunteer military today means that we can now fight a war without it meaning any personal sacrifice — and without all our young men on the line. And sadly, that makes it all to easy to fight –and to forget the cost of war.

  2. I adore Vietnam. When my partner was the country director for Habitat for Humanity there, it was interesting to watch the organization partner with the government–especially when we brought the Jimmy Carter Work Project to the country in 2009. It was Carter’s first time in Vietnam since the war. Poweful, powerful experience. Lovely post. By the way, you should take a look at my post from last week, as I have a photo of my Maltese Lucy wearing a conical hat.

    • I saw that, Kathy — and I loved LOVED it! I was thinking of you & Sara working there, and can only imagine how intense your experiences must have been. What a world of travel you two have done! (and a world of good, too!) xooxo b

  3. Kevin

    Love those hats! As well as the history lesson ✌

  4. BJ

    It is always an unusual and uneasy feeling when visiting those places where we, as a people, have had such a difficult and tumultuous history. Museums and places in Japan, and many stops in Europe give those same vibes. The same sense of sorry and regret that such wonderful people have had to endure such chaos and misery as a part of their lives.
    Now organizations like Heifer are out doing such marvelous work, and that is what will help promote a better future for all those individuals it touches in all those previously ravaged lands.

    • I agree with so much of what you have articulated, BJ — which is one reason that the entire GOP position of “American exceptionalism” makes me so queasy. We haven’t always been a force for good in this world (not by a long shot) and to think that we are above reproach and have no reason to ever apologize for some of the terrible injustices we’ve done is short-sighted and counter-productive. I love America but I also love this planet and feel as if self-determination of people is a good thing. WE don’t have to tell everybody in the world how to live — it’s not our business.

  5. Martha Radatz

    Even though the first morning we were in Vietnam in 2010, I threw opened the doors to our miniscule balcony that overlooked the morning market and called out with Robin William’s flair, “Good Morrrrning, Viet Naaaam!”, the whole time we were in the country, my stomach was in knots, and my emotions on a roll. I could SO identify with this post. So much waste. Such sadness.

  6. Deb Morrow Palmer

    I was always against our country being there and protested adamantly since I was in 9th grade. My experiences in those days as a protestor opened my eyes to our country’s need to control. Had my fair share of tear gas for a lifetime! When I make it to Cambodia I will also see Vietnam. After my daughter spent time there she said the same as you about being incredible entrepreneurs and business people, even though a communist country. I wish we could end all wars that do nothing but devastate the country it is occurring in.

    • Deb — I had no idea you were a war protestor, too! Yay! It’s so great to reconnect with you through this year, and I hope you get to go to Cambodia and Vietnam with your daughter … how magical that could be!!

  7. Anonymous

    I loved Vietnam when I visited in 2007. I had the same reaction at the War Remnants Museum. The Vietnamese refer to it as the American War of course, which followed the French War. Amazing to see the spirit of these people after so much interference – they are incredible.
    I am grateful to you for taking us along your enlightening year with Heifer. If your travels take you to HoiAn please don’t miss Duc Tranh’s MangoRooms! Best food I had in the 3 weeks I was there.

    • Hi Miss A — I went to Hoi An last visit (didn’t get up north this time) and absolutely loved i! I didn’t get to that restaurant, but I sure did love all the art and brought 6 lanterns home with me. Perfecto!

  8. Oh my , I well remember the “teach in”, the “speak ins” the endless anti war demonstrations I dragged my young children to, protesting our country’s misdirected horror making so called freedom war. At the least, Vietnam should have been America’s wake up call . Not so. Either memories are too short., leaders are too stupid..or more likely, the military industrial interests are too powerful but there we were doing it all over again in Irag. I can only imagine the “Atrocities of War” museum that will be built there one day. Thank goodness for organizations like Heifer that show the world the other kind of American intervention. Safe travels, Betty dear. Love, Bonnie

    • Dearest Bonnie, I heard on NPR the other day that the rate of birth defects in Iraq has soared by some astronomical percentage, as a result of all the heavy lead and mineral waste that was rained down in the bombing campaigns across the country. Who would have thought we’d leave behind such a terrible legacy — and even in peace, the war keeps claiming lives and savaging the civilian population. That’s one of the reasons I’m so offended when people casually mention going to war or attacking other countries. They just have NO idea of what the real cost are.. or who is paying them.

  9. Ok now , which war was the war to end all wars? #1, Civil, Vietnam, Afghanistan ( oh no, that one is still going on)..It is mind numbing / blowing and there’s a new book on how we are less violent as a society…Yes, thank God for Heifer.
    i am going to India in February on a pilgrimage journey…wnat to connect with a Heifer project there . I do have someone in Little Rock to call, so will do that.
    I am so glad to have been directed to your journal and blog. Those photos are so startlingly beautiful.

    • Dear Alice — I agree that unfortunately the new weapons we’ve developed have made us even more capable of waging war without seeing (or apparently feeling) the costs. An article in The New Yorker called “Atonement” talked about a returning Iraq war vet who was tormented by his memory of a killing spree of citizens that was enabled by his weapon — that shot over 1,000 rounds of ammunition a minute. It’s inconceivable but part of what they showed in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City were the new technology weapons (that are now old tech) that the Pentagon was dying to try out … and how that macabre research and development model further bolstered the war effort.
      Hey if you need any contacts at Heifer for India, please email me (look under contact info on the blog!)

      • Deb Morrow Palmer

        All wars have the macabre. The surgical atrocities Hitler’s regime did, the atomic bomb, agent orange, I sometimes get sucked under wondering when will mankind learn to just accept everyone is different? And as Randy Newman’s song goes “Human kindness, it’s overflowing, and I think it’s going to rain today.”

  10. My husband has a good friend who is a Vietnam Vet; he was 19 during his tour of duty. He visited us in May when he participated in Rolling Thunder. He opened up a lot about his experiences during the war, opening my eyes even further to the senselessness which even he felt as he served our country. His stories and your post leave me in awe of how gracious and forgiving many Vietnamese seem to be toward Americans. The U.S. denies a casual link with the dioxin poisoning? Utterly disgraceful. As always, your photos are wonderful and the people in them are beautiful. The video is lovely, and unsettling given the absence of peace so many years ago. Bless Heifer and you!

    • Thanks, AA — and my heart truly does go out to those who served. I cannot imagine being sent to do that job … and trying as a young man to make sense of it all. And then to have to feel the scorn and contempt of people at home — what a horribly conflicted time that was. I was blown away in 2005 by the openness of the Vietnamese to Americans — but it does seem that all they wanted was to be free to run their own country. And now they can … and it’s fine. So what was all our intervention about???

  11. amy

    3 thumbs up Betty!

  12. Susan Eckhart

    Peace NOW? How often to we have to say it? Where are the protesters? Thanks for this elegant reminder. Susan Eckhart

  13. Susan, I think that until every person of age is liable to serve in the military, we have no business going to war. Because unfortunately it’s all too easy to send somebody else’s baby to battle — and we’re far, far too cavalier about it. The longest two wars in American history are just coming to a slow, grinding halt and you have to ask — what did we gain from the $1 trillion we spent (on Iraq alone) and the far greater cost in American and Iraqi lives??

  14. I’ve never been to Vietnam but after reading this post I feel as if I was there. How do you do it? Brilliant post Betty, and brilliant photos especially the frail old man, and the woman on the bicycle. 🙂

  15. Oh, I’m so happy you felt like I did Vietnam right … and I thought of you constantly when I was in South Africa just for one night! p.s. I loved that old man – he was really sweet and had such a smile!

  16. Lovely balanced post Betty. I don’t even remember why “we” were in Vietnam. Does Vietnam have oil ?

    To whom do we apologize for Mitt Romney’s arrogance ?

  17. What a beautiful post Betty! I would love to go to Vietnam. It is a place that has always fascinated me. I grew up with some refuges from Vietnam here in MN and will never forget them. I am also reading an fabulous book right now by a Vietnamese American who rode his bike through Vietnam trying to reconnect with his past. It has a sad history for such a beautiful country…

  18. Your photo of the US Army helicopter says it all: What is that thing doing there? It looks hideously surreal. And your placement of it — between the images of the women working quietly and the men’s serene faces — is perfect. I hope someday humans will look back on our lust for war and experience the same revulsion we now feel about slavery. My wife and I are planning a trip to Japan next year, including two days in Hiroshima. I’m sure the effect there will be the same as your reaction to the War Remnants Museum.

  19. Wow! I am in Japan right now, Charles – you and your wife are going to find it so fascinating — I just wish I had re-read all my Japanese history texts from college … as well as watching Clint Eastwood’s duo of movies from WWII ! It’s so culturally rich and deep, but also almost impenetrable from an outsider’s perspective … I can’t wait to hear what you think — but in any event, Hiroshima and Nagasaki ??? almost unbearable to contemplate really .. thanks for the comment!!!

    • My wife was born in Japan, and we were there in 2006, sightseeing and visiting some of her family. It was an unforgettable experience. I can’t wait to go back — and I can’t wait to hear about your travels there.

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