Many younger people, when they think of Vietnam, think of it as a country. Older generations, especially Americans, think first of the war.
The Vietnam war was, and for many on both sides still is, the source of profound loss and a deep psychological wound. It has been said that “Vietnam may have been the worst thing to happen to America in the 20th century. And the reverse may also well be true.” How do countries and people get past this trauma? We aimed to find out how the Vietnamese deal with this as we explored southern Vietnam over a 4 day period.
First, our orientation map courtesy of Google. As you can see, Vietnam is a long narrow coastal country in the shape of an “S”. It is about 1000 miles long, with a population of around 15 million.
We will save Ho Chi Minh City for last, and begin our tour in the countryside. Reminders of the war are still around. The Chu Chi tunnels are a good example. Interestingly, these tunnels were originally constructed by the Vietnamese people in the colonial period to hide their sons from being taken and forced to join the French army; they were later expanded by the communists into a maze of 125 miles of tunnels for use as a base for guerrilla warfare by as many as 16,000 fighters. The tunnels are very small and claustrophobic, but contained chambers for cooking, medical care, etc. It is possible to tour the tunnels today, including crawling through some of them, and hear from survivors about their experiences. Here a young Vietnamese man demonstrates a hidden entrance, which was completely invisible when closed.
But all is not war relics and bad memories. Taking a pole-propelled sampan ride down a small tributary of the Mekong River, we floated past jungles and people living traditional lifestyles.
On the main channel of the Mekong, riverboats ferry people and goods. We cruised the muddy waters aboard the no-frills and somewhat rickety Mekong Queen. At least there were life jackets, just in case. Thankfully, they were not needed!
The countryside is filled with rice paddies and villages. Here a Vietnamese woman is making rice paper in the traditional style. After a scoop of the liquid rice paste is cooked like a crepe, the very thin “paper” is placed on bamboo racks to dry as seen in the foreground of the photo. Once dry, they are ready to be used as the wrap for delicious spring rolls.
So how do the people here deal with the legacy of the war? One war survivor told us that “wars are caused by governments, not people”. The Vietnamese people we encountered seemed to enjoy meeting and speaking with foreigners, including Americans. While not forgetting the important lessons of history, they live in the present and look to the future.
Our next stop will be Saigon, surely a city looking to the future.