Learning About The Vietnam (American) War During Our Time In Vietnam

A few days ago, on the boat ride out to the best snorkeling experience I've ever had (once again proving that the best experiences need not be expensive -- $17 for a full day's tour including lunch), our guide told us solemnly to prepare ourselves for the day's underwater adventure in the Vietnam Sea.

The Vietnam Sea?

Our guide waited a few beats, raised his eyebrows, and informed us that if we travel to Vietnam, we swim in the Vietnam Sea not the South China Sea. "I love my country," he said.

Vietnamese flag flying in Hoi An

Vietnamese flag flying in Hoi An

I knew exactly what he meant. With no disrespect to my friends to the north, there is no way I could stomach travelling to Long Island during New York summers to swim in the South Canada Sea. I love my country, too! :)

Because Nicole and I know from past travels that most people feel the same way about their own countries, and because of course there is a complicated history between the U.S. and Vietnam, we wondered prior to our trip if we would experience any problems as Americans travelling in Vietnam. Moreover, because of my aforementioned love of the U.S. of A., and despite Nicole's initial protests, I insisted on travelling with an American flag patch on my backpack.  

After six weeks, we have experienced exactly zero problems in Vietnam as a result of being Americans. Not once has my American flag patch even elicited a comment. To the contrary, most people we've met are excited to talk to a couple of Americans since the majority of tourists in Vietnam seem to be Chinese, Russian, Australian, or European (long side note: I regularly get mistaken for a Russian here which I don't think my current haircut helps! Yesterday, at dinner, the waiter mistakenly gave Nicole and I Russian menus which we presumed were the only foreigner menus available. As we were trying to parse the Russian, the waiter realized his mistake and provided English menus. People say New York is a melting pot, but there we were, a couple of Americans, in an Indian restaurant, in Vietnam, trying to make sense of a Russian menu. :) ) 

All that said, obviously there is a history between Vietnam and America! And looking back, it seems crazy (and embarrassing) that prior to heading off for two months in Vietnam, I knew almost nothing about that history. Two experiences caused me to change that.  

Store in Hoi An selling propaganda posters from during the war

Store in Hoi An selling propaganda posters from during the war

First, we traveled to Phong Nha, which is in the northern part of Vietnam, during a national holiday weekend. That is why we were forced to take a sleeper bus instead of the overnight train that was fully booked with locals headed home to see family. Although officially called Reunification Day, any English speaking locals we talked to called it Independence Day. (Confusingly, there is a separate Independence Day in September that celebrates Vietnam's liberation from French occupation.)

Prior to our cave tour in Phong Nha, while we were waiting for the other tourists to arrive, our guide lamented having to work the holiday weekend. I asked him about what sort of independence the holiday celebrated and, when he couldn't understand the question, explained that the U.S. has an Independence Day commemorating our 1776 break from England. After hearing this, he understood and said, "Oh, we celebrate winning the American War." 

He knew Nicole and I were from the States and didn't say this with any braggadocio, he was just stating the facts as he saw them. Nonetheless, I was sort of shocked and started reading about the war on the internet the next day. (And yes, I know from my reading since then that there are more than this one way to look at and characterize the conclusion of the U.S. war effort.) 

Flag flying in the citadel near the imperial city in Hue

Flag flying in the citadel near the imperial city in Hue

Second, on a rainy night during our time in Da Nang, Nicole and I took our rented motorbike to a burger restaurant we'd read about on Tripadvisor. Since it was pouring, we were the only people there and once we finished eating, the owner/cook, a smaller Vietnamese woman in her 60's, asked us where we were from.

What followed over the next two hours was her story, in broken English, of her family's experience in Da Nang after the U.S. left the country. (Regarding the time when the U.S. was in Da Nang, she mentioned that as a young girl she learned her English from the U.S. G.I.s stationed there. This may also have explained why she swore like a sailor.)

After the U.S. left, the North imprisoned her brother who was a South soldier. They also took her family's home and material possessions which forced her family and many others to flee to mountains near Laos. There, her family and the others lived off of what they could forage from the land. She said that many people died in the mountains during that time due to the harsh conditions. Upon eventually returning to Da Nang, her family lived in a tent city because their old home continued to be occupied. They focused almost entirely on mere survival and scraping together food to take to her brother at the prison. (At one point, forgetting an English word, she went to the kitchen and brought out a jar of dry oats to show us the type of food they would bring to her brother.) She reenacted her family's response when the occupiers told her family that they should return to the mountains by raising her middle finger and saying, "F*ck you, you have taken our home and everything we owned, you will have to put bullets in our heads before we leave again." 

I'm not doing her account justice but, in short, it was one of the most moving stories I've ever heard. Three separate times this older woman broke into tears telling it. We all hugged afterwards. She emphasized that she was not angry with the "18 year old boys" from the U.S. who fought the war, but that she was angry with the American president who pulled the U.S. out. 

Prior to hearing this story, I'd never thought to read about what happened abroad after the U.S. left Vietnam. Now I had reason to. After reading up, I know there are many sides to these stories and the history before, during, and after the U.S. war effort. I also know that my treating the war as kind of an interesting history subject to learn about during my trip abroad could be insulting to those that lived through it and whose families and friends where impacted. That is definitely not intended. 

I know that many people my age and younger know basically nothing about the war. When our friends Kara and Leigh Anna were here, I recounted the above stories one night and we were all surprised that four thirty-something U.S. citizens who have all graduated from college and are working professionals didn't know the basics of these events that completely altered the course of American history less than a half-century ago. We do now, and so having said all that, I'm glad this trip spurred me to learn some history even if what I know now only skims the surface.

Like this post? Want to read more about Travis and Nicole's travel adventures? Check out Our Overview And Observations From Travelling For Two Months Through Vietnam.

Then sign up here for the Sunday Shoutout, our weekly email newsletter providing a link to that week's blog posts and a few other odds and ends we are interested in.