I Went to Vietnam to Understand America’s Role in Its History and Was Blown Away by What I Learned
The heat sat over me like a weighted blanket as I balanced in a small canoe, gliding through grass that towered higher than my head. Tall trees — the only respite from the beaming sun — and fluffy white clouds floated above, lending a peaceful feeling to Xeo Quyt, a mangrove forest about three hours southwest of Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as it’s still commonly called), not far from the banks of the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam.
As the wooden boat gently rocked from side to side, I imagined how simple it would be to forget what this place used to be. It would be easy to miss the bomb craters created decades ago, now out of sight beneath the water, or to overlook the abandoned bunkers, once used as a base by Viet Cong fighters and now nearly overtaken by the unruly forest that grew around them.
Like much of South Vietnam, the area had become almost unrecognizable since the war — it had moved on. Look closely enough, though, and you can see still the scars of a war that claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans and 3.8 million Vietnamese, including two million civilians. From the mid-1950s, when America started providing military support to Vietnamese in the south, through 1973, when U.S. troops withdrew from the area, and through the turbulent years after, the country — and especially the south — had been transformed. But half a century later, all that remained were faint shadows.
Driving past picturesque rice paddies steeped in water that had fallen during the afternoon rains — a welcome break from the stifling humidity – my Wild Frontiers guide, Khoa, noted that many Vietnamese who were born after the war preferred not to think about it. It was history, having little discernible impact on day-to-day life. It’s easy to see how — removed from the bomb craters and other obvious signs of war — Ho Chi Minh City appeared as a modern showpiece: high-rise buildings stood surrounded by trendy tourist shops and a sea of motorbikes that forced folks to dodge them like a real-life game of Frogger.
I’d always wanted to go to Vietnam and learn about the war. It had been a goal since I was a teenager and studied it in history class, staring at black-and-white photographs that felt full of question marks. Away from the city, where palm trees surrounded wide-open farms and we snacked on bunches of sweet longan fruit, I was determined to understand that era of American history a bit more than the textbooks allowed. And while the warm people of Vietnam didn’t bring it up, they also didn’t seem to hold a grudge when I asked.
“Many American mothers lost their kids in Vietnam,” Huynh Van Chia (or Mr. Nam, as he’s fondly known) said through a translator. “During the war time, [we] knew this… [we] knew there were students demonstrating, the parents demonstrating.” After a decade of fighting as a Viet Cong soldier, 73-year-old Mr. Nam made it his mission to share his experience.
“Nobody will know if you don’t tell them. It’s really important that you tell them and continue doing that, even with my last breath,” he said.
Mr. Nam was nearly 17 years old in 1963, when he started living in the Củ Chi tunnels, a dizzying, dark maze of cramped bunkers dipping several stories underground. As the war picked up speed, his home was burned down because he refused to go to a camp, and he eventually lived and fought in the tunnels. During his 12 years there, he existed on nothing but cassava for months, blew up a U.S. tank and lost his eye and arm in the return of fire, and was one of only two in his unit to survive the war. After the fighting ceased, Mr. Nam returned to find a changed landscape. Much of his family had died, and he proceeded to pick up the pieces of a life that had been put on hold.
In Trung Lap Ha, a village located about an hour northwest of the city, we sat at a table with heaping plates of tofu mixed with tomatoes, onions, and peppers; sticky rice; fresh spring rolls; and a large bottle of moonshine. After dinner, between sips of tea, I asked him a simple yet complicated question: Why is it important to talk about the war?
“The war, which is destruction — I just cannot describe how horrible it was… [I] never want that to happen again. It doesn't matter where — this homeland or another country — I don’t want it to happen again,” he said calmly. He then recalled a message he once delivered to a group of students. “A message for Vietnamese students, young people, Americans around the world: Do not meet up at the battlefield. Never. You should meet up at the tea table, like this.”
Fifty years after Steve Murray fought in the Vietnam War, he packed his bags and went back. The idea for the trip, which he took in June with Wild Frontiers, came when Murray, 74, and his friend, Paul Olsen, 73, got a little drunk and curious. The pair had gone together during the war in 1969, and while Murray didn’t know what returning would be like, the trip ended up having a bigger impact than he expected.
“You're viewing it from a time of peace versus a time of war; everything was [through] a different lens,” said Murray, who now lives in Washington State. “It was important for us and I think it would be important to others.”
Murray said both he and Olsen had initially resisted the idea of going back. Audibly emotional, Murray told me he suffered from survivor’s guilt for years, and while the country had very noticeably changed in the decades since, seeing it offered an often-elusive feeling: closure.
“It doesn’t go away, but the feelings are different, the emotions are different because we went back. It was a good thing. I felt better when we got back,” he said. “I told far more stories about this nine-day visit than I told about [the war].”
Olsen, who is from South Carolina, recalled a serendipitous meeting in a coffee shop during their recent trip with a man who had fought for the Viet Cong. The man joked, saying that if they had met decades ago, "one of us wouldn’t have been there."
“He said it smiling, and we laughed about it, but he's right,” said Olsen. And while he noted that many signs of the war had been erased, he also said, “we learn from the past, if nothing else.”
Over the years, many visitors have gone to Vietnam looking to retrace the war’s history. In fact, about 95 percent of Wild Frontiers’ trips have had some aspect of the war built in. But that has been changing recently.
“I think as we move forward… the war is further in the past and thus less relevant to the travelers who are going today,” said Andrea Ross, the company’s U.S. director. “Vietnam attracts a more millennial crowd because of the food, because it's fascinating, [and] it has a booming night scene.”
She added, “There was this definite desire to move on… With that said, they don’t seem to mind that we as Americans bring it back up.”
On my last night in Vietnam, I stood in front of the window of my hotel room, high above the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City below. I gently wrapped up a Vietnamese copy of “Goodnight Moon” — a gift I had bought for my nephew from an expansive, modern bookstore down the street. I looked up in time to catch one of the city’s upscale dinner cruises floating down the Saigon River, snaking past the high-rise buildings, and I thought how easy it would be to only see this side of the country. However, that would be a shame. Because at the end of the day, it’s through a country’s history that you can truly understand its future — America and Vietnam included.