The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975 when 2 tanks from North Vietnam or the Viet Cong crashed through the gates of what is now known as the Reunification Palace in Saigon.
When we all heard we were going to Vietnam some of our MARL group wondered what it would be like since they grew up in the Vietnam era. Some had family members who had fought in Vietnam.
I was one of those people with family that had fought in Vietnam. Most of my uncles don’t like to talk about it. Some did multiple tours of duty in Vietnam so others with families could go back home. Some lived on sea rations while they were in the jungle. Some ended up with diseases from there. Some lost friends. Some carried out dead bodies from bombings. Some were gunners on a helicopter on the Ho Chi Minh trail, one of the most dangerous jobs during the war. Some haven’t shot a gun since.
Honestly, I don’t know how all my uncles came back alive, or with every body part still attached. They all have scars from it, both emotionally and physically. I have been lucky enough to have one uncle who has opened up about his time during the Vietnam War. Everything from a pet monkey, to owning one of the motorbikes we saw so many of, to being there when they bombed the U.S. embassy. I had always been fascinated by the Vietnam War, partly because it is the only war we have technically ever lost, the animosity our soldiers faced on our own home soil, and because my family had such a presence there. I did a huge report on the Vietnam War in 8th grade – literally about 25 pages worth, which for an 8th grader, the Vietnam War was a pretty heavy topic. I interviewed my uncle in high school about it for another paper. I poured over countless books from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to my favorite, Vietnam: Our Story One on One from Gary Gullickson, who if you ever get a chance to meet, which I hope you do – he’s often collecting donations for Vietnam Veterans at Wal-Marts across Southern MN – he is a fantastic guy.
I have been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. The memorials on the Mall make you cry no matter what, but I can remember walking it with Mark when we visited with tears running down my face. The same thing happened to me when I walked the traveling wall when it stopped in Cleveland. I am so thankful my uncles are all still here. I am also forever in debt for those that gave their life to protect the freedoms we have in the U.S.
Being able to step foot on the same ground that some of my family did, really put into perspective what they were fighting for, and it was eye-opening to see how Vietnam has thrived since the war.
We noticed a lot of little things in terms of it being a communist country as well as remnants of the War. For instance, in the north, it is called Ho Chi Minh City, but once you get down south, everyone refers to it as Saigon still. There are a lot more Vietnam flags flying in the North than there are in the south. We watched a video about the war while on our bus in which lines like “America and their puppets” “Americans wanted to kill innocent women and children” were part of it. The south is very westernized compared to the north, and you can definitely tell that the south is the economic driving force for northern Vietnam. Even the people in the south were taller, part of which we were told was because they had a more American diet – dairy and meat proteins. We noticed dog tags at certain antique shops, as well as things like canteens, weapons, etc. Old war propaganda war posters could be purchased at various shops as well.
Our tour guide had us sing an ode to Ho Chi Minh in Ho Chi Minh square will in Hanoi. I’m still not sure what that was all about – having 30 Americans sing a song to your communist leader where his body is buried. Some of the group opted out on it. I understand why. It was also a little odd being followed by what we can only assume as undercover military or police force while we were in Ho Chi Minh square. It is a communist country, and they definitely knew we were there.
We toured the Chu Chi Tunnels that the Viet Cong used to hide from soldiers, bombs, and to kill soldiers as well. I can’t even imagine living in there for days or weeks at an end because the tunnels were so tiny. I crawled through both, and I honestly don’t know how Northern Vietnam soldiers did it. I also understood after seeing the kinds of traps that were set for Southern Vietnam soldiers and allies, why it was so hard to fight this war. It was a big of a scary experience, but one I am glad I went through. We were able to see B-52 bomb craters as part of touring the Chu Chi Tunnel area as well.
We were also able to tour the Reunification palace in Saigon. Seeing the underground bunker facility that was used for communications was really interesting. Something as simple as communication that we do so easily now through the Internet, required whole rooms for radio signals. How quickly we take for granted how not that long ago, something like the iPads we all use to communicate with today didn’t exist. The maps on the walls were also pretty eye-opening. Today we rely so heavily on our phones and GPS, that I’m not sure many people even know how to read a map now a days. Good thing my Dad passed that trait on down to me – navigation has been one of my strong suits since I was little. They had mapped out certain bombings, villages, military stations, etc. They had mapped out where the enemy was and where they had advanced. I can’t imagine basically just being in a jungle, and trying to find your way around.
We were told not to go to the Vietnam War museum that is in Ho Chi Minh City by our tour guide. He said, out of respect for you and America, it is very full of propaganda. He definitely recognized that what was being portrayed and said, wasn’t necessarily true, and wasn’t good for the tourist economy that Vietnam now depends on. We were often told, bring more Americans back to visit, and to come back again. They want to show off their beautiful country, and I would go back again given the chance.
There are definite remnants of the War throughout Vietnam. However, even being a Communist country, the amount of entrepreneurism and business savvy we encountered kind of counter- acted what we have come to know as Communism, even with the corruption and wage disparity that was present. Their views for the future as a united country are extremely promising, and I never felt unwelcome as an American there. I will talk more about all of that in my next post!