Vietnam: An Introduction
A typical afternoon in Hanoi .
Preface: I realize that the following write-up isn't particularly brief, or uplifting. But I can't bring myself to write anything about Vietnam without first making sure that we're all on the same page in regards to my country's history there. For me and many other Americans, visiting Vietnam is, in part, about letting go of old baggage and preconceptions. The first step in accomplishing that is to know the facts. If you have no interest in how the US and Vietnam got to where they are today and would rather just see pictures and read my thoughts on traveling the country, skip ahead to my next few posts.
In 1967, encouraged by his Medal of Honor holding grandfather and a suspicion that he would soon be drafted into the infantry, my dad enlisted in the air force. He was 19 years old when he was sent to Vietnam. Most of his stories about the war were vague, short, and lighthearted: good sandwiches in Saigon, impressive fireworks (which in my young mind I took to mean just that and nothing more), good friends, and general complaints about the bugs, heat, rain, and chemicals that the air force dropped on his bases. As an aircraft electrician, he stuck to fortified bases, but was there during the peak of the war, and saw enough of it to make him not particularly enjoy the experience. He held no ill will of his supposed enemy, and occasionally mentioned the possibility of going back someday to see the country in peacetime. He never got the chance though; he died in 2007.
When I was in school we were taught an abbreviated version of history when it came to the Vietnam War. In fact, I think the most I ever learned about Vietnam was when I had to choose a country to write a report on in 5th grade; over 20 years ago when the country was in the process of normalizing relations with the US. A lot has changed since then. The following is a short history of US and Vietnamese relations over the last 50 years. It'll take 5 or 10 minutes to read, and you might learn more on the subject than you ever did in school.
The Backstory: A Revolution Leads to a Power Struggle
In the mid to late 1800s, France took control of much of Southeast Asia. In 1954 a resistance movement led, in part, by a guy named Ho Chi Minh won a decisive battle in North Vietnam and got rid of the French. Papers were signed, Laos and Cambodia were given their independence, and Vietnam was divided between the communist-run Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the north), and the Republic of South Vietnam.
The plan was that the two countries would unite and hold an election to decide who would be in charge, but the CIA supported president of South Vietnam resisted elections, figuring that the more populous north would vote his government out of power. The north sent guerrilla fighters to start a resistance movement in the south, and in 1959 the northern government passed an official decree calling for a socialist revolution in the south. The northern led resistance in the south would soon be known as the Viet Cong. So at this point, you have a dictator running the south and communists who are killing off political enemies and seizing property running the north.
Why the US Got Involved
In 1949, communists won a revolution in China and then moved into Korea, resulting in the Korean War. The US had been watching Vietnam closely ever since the French were kicked out, fearing that communism would spread throughout Vietnam (which borders China to the south), and then to the rest of the countries in the region. The US quietly supported the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, by sending money, weapons, and advisors to help train troops in the mid 50s. In the early 60s the US started sending more troops and helicopters to back what was increasingly seen as an oppressive dictator, and in 1963 the South Vietnamese military got the quiet go-ahead from President Kennedy to oust President Diem. The man who the US had been supporting for seven years was arrested and promptly shot by his own troops. Over the next few years a dozen governments came and went in South Vietnam as military coups ousted and installed one president after another.
In August 1964 a sketchy incident took place during which a couple North Vietnamese Navy patrol boats got into an altercation with two US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. The US's ships fired the first shots and came out unscathed, but Vietnamese patrol boats (which were heavily damaged) shot back, prompting congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, essentially a declaration of war. There was supposedly a second sea battle two days after the first that also played into the passage of the resolution, but decades later unclassified documents showed that this battle never actually happened. The Soviet Union and China sided with the north and began sending weapons, planes, food, and medical supplies, and the US ramped up for full-on war in support of the south.
The rest you probably know, or at least are aware of. Within a few years, there were 500,000 US troops in Vietnam and widespread antiwar protests in the US. US planes carpet bombed jungles and hamlets that were thought to be areas where the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were hiding in the south, along with towns, cities and military installations in the north. Suspected bases and transportation routes in Laos and Cambodia were secretly bombed as well. In total the US dropped three times more bombs in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos than every country combined dropped in World War II. A defoliant known as Agent Orange was dropped on forests and farms throughout the country to kill trees and crops, and thereby deny the enemy cover and food; it would later be found to cause cancer, birth defects, and other health problems, and is still a major problem in rural Vietnam today. Civilians were massacred by the North Vietnamese Army, the South Vietnamese Army, the Viet Cong, and US Military.
Somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million Vietnamese were killed during the war, a third or more of which were civilians. 58,220 Americans were killed. About 60,000 people were killed in both Laos, and Cambodia. Over 100,000 have since been killed or maimed by unexploded ordinance. More will be killed in the years ahead. In history class my generation was told that the war was a draw. Later my dad told me that in fact, we lost the war. The truth is that everyone lost.
These days relations between the US and Vietnam governments are so stable that President Obama was allowed to eat noodles and drink beer with Anthony Bordane at a working class restaurant in Hanoi. The communists may have won the war, but today capitalism is thriving all over the country. The system of government is referred to as a one-party socialist republic, which means that it's a socialist country where the people vote for their representatives, who all come from the communist party. After a lot of reading I'm still not sure what that means, but I think basically they have elections in which their options in candidates are pretty limited, and that their government is doing what it can to hold on to work some basic Marxist/Leninist ideals into a modern capitalist framework. The reality on the ground is that people seem pretty free to do as they please, urban development is happening incredibly fast, and younger people in particular seem to be working hard to get their piece of the pie. While traveling through the country we sometimes laughed about how there seemed to be no rules enforced anywhere, but at the same time I felt far safer walking around in big cities late at night than I would in US.
Favorable exchange rates, amazing food, and worthwhile natural and cultural attractions put Vietnam on the must visit list for travelers from around the world. About a year and a half ago I suggested to my brother that we should go someday. My life was pretty scheduled out at the time, but I said that I’d be free “not this fall, but maybe next fall.” So it was, that in late November 2018, 50 years after our dad celebrated his 20th birthday in Vietnam, I landed in Ho Chi Min City and caught a taxi into the city to go search for my brother.
Over the coming weeks I plan on doing a write-up with photos from each area that we visited in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Hanoi, and the greater Ha Long Bay area. Vietnam isn’t huge geographically, but the urban/rural divide, the blending of communism and capitalism, and the French/American/Chinese influence in the bigger cities makes for a surprisingly culturally diverse place with an incredibly complicated history. I didn’t know what to expect from Vietnam before I went, and because it's changing so fast and I saw so little of it in three weeks, I don’t know what to expect when I return.
This might be hard to understand if you haven't spent time in Hanoi, but this photo of a scooter (driven by a guy on his phone) passing a taxi, passing a hat vendor, all tailed by more cars and scooters, is a decent metaphor for the place.