Many of the Vietnam veterans who return to Vietnam speak in terms of paying homage to their brethren whose lives, limbs, and sanity were lost in a land of unparalleled beauty. From its coastline beaches to its curvaceous mountains to its lateritic red soil to its pock marked landscape all reveal a subtle and not so subtle story of battles yore; but mostly, these vets speak to exorcising demons from a moment in time their psyche has, heretofore, been unable to release.
This writer makes the trek to Vietnam as a tourist of sorts with a history that is inextricably linked to one’s youth, fears, and “what ifs,” about a land most baby boomers went through extraordinary efforts to avoid. Accompanying me are images depicted in such Hollywood films as the Deer Hunter, Apocalypse now, Platoon, and Hamburger Hill.
As the plane hugs the coastline of southern China on a southwest heading for final approach into Hanoi, visions of America’s newly minted warriors straining to catch a glimpse out of an airplane window with lumps in their throats at a land shrouded in ancient mystery and death, rummage through this writer’s mind. Sadly, for far too many this would be their necropolis.
Initial reaction upon arriving in Hanoi was much the same as arriving in China—an environmental disaster of sorts–at least in terms of air quality. Nothing says Vietnam more than ubiquitous rice paddies with stooped over women wearing Bamboo conical hats (non la hat—in Vietnamese) transplanting seedlings with a nearby, loyal as a dog, water buffalo. Nothing says Vietnam more than stilted housing, high mountains, deep ravines and lush vegetation
The country is trying to attract more investment dollars, but it still has a ways to go to make the stay of foreigners hospitable. The airport is undergoing a facelift, if not, new construction because the current one is as disastrous as the air quality—hardly a welcoming representation of a great city. Once in the center section of Hanoi the French influence is unmistakable and unavoidable. One hundred years of colonial dominance often leaves its architectural mark of shudders and overhanging roofs. French Indochina encompassed present day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The last Emperor Bao Dai is often credited with changing the name of the country from Annam to Vietnam. Historically, however, many manifestations of the current name were credited to many people. The country actually settled on the name Nam Viet which, to this day, is the current way the United Nations list it. Loosely, Nam means South and Viet means People with the current Chinese name of Yue Nan 越南 meaning “beyond the south” people.
After WWII, the French incredibly reasserted themselves into Indochina. Vanquished and brutally occupied by Nazi Germany, with the imposition of a Vichy puppet government, one would think that the French would’ve been more sensitive and sympathetic to the needs and aspirations of the Vietnamese people after such a similar experience in Europe. Apparently, old dynasties die hard and memories are fleeting.
The French have returned to Vietnam in great numbers and the Americans have not. The defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 hasn’t had a lasting demoralizing affect on them. To watch them walk around these grandiose hotels that they once lived a privileged life in it’s as though amnesia has set in and they are back in the 19th century. Americans have less of a history to this country and the one they do have is negative. Perhaps, in time, Americans will travel to Vietnam in greater numbers—but I doubt it.