When I told my seventeen-year old daughter I was going to Vietnam, she was very impressed. I ostensibly went to visit a friend who lives there and to try to see the country through his eyes. I also went to photograph (and scout locations for a potential photo workshop.) I am pretty sure my daughter thinks of Vietnam in connection with the TV show, the Amazing Race and maybe the musical, Miss Saigon. For American men of a certain age (like me,) Vietnam conjures up something very different.
I spent my five days in Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City,) so I saw only a small part of Vietnam. What I saw was the commercial capital of that nation. Saigon (as it was long called) is brimming with young people, mostly flying by on millions of scooters, motorcycles and mopeds. My impression of the Vietnam (that I saw) is a place where people are working hard, trying to succeed and eating some great food.
There was another Vietnam that I was looking for. That is the Vietnam in my mind’s eye, the place that I so strongly associated with that country’s war. To me the word “Vietnam” conjures up the war, where 58,000 American soldiers died and over 2 million (or more) Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died.
Vietnam is the place where my cousin Rick died while fighting in the US Army. It was the place that I feared I might have to go to myself. In the middle of my teenage years, Vietnam became a catchword for the entire debate around the war. It also referred to the question of what I would do, if I were, in fact, drafted to go to that war. Vietnam was also the catch phrase for the antiwar movement that peaked in my early teens.
Because of the way my birthday falls, I was among the last American young men to receive draft cards from the government. I received mine on my 18th birthday, which occurred in 1975. The military had continued sending out draft cards after they stopped drafting young men in 1973. When that happened, the issue was settled, I would not have to choose a side and take a stand on the debate because I was not going to be drafted. I breathed an obvious sigh of relief when it became clear there was no prospect of me “going” to Vietnam to fight.
Now, 35 years later, almost three times as old as I was when I almost “went” to Vietnam, I was going there voluntarily. Throughout most of my time there something kept troubling me. A voice in my head asked, was the ordinary street corner I just encountered important in the war? Was the bar I just passed a place frequented by American soldiers, like I might have been? At almost every turn, I was looking for something more, some profound insight that would magically clarify Vietnam in my mind.
I even went to the National War Remembrance Museum, which vilifies the Americans and the French before them, who both fought losing wars in Vietnam. The answer was not there nor was it in the captured American tanks and jets that stand in the entrance to that museum.
The last day, as I was leaving, I finally accepted that I had come to Vietnam with a head full of old fears, stereotypes and bits of ghosts. The ghosts of my cousin and millions of others who died there. The Vietnamese of today have other concerns. They could not answer my undefined questions about what might have been my experience during the Vietnam war. Only I could do that. I have read extensively on the war, including fiction, biographies, analysis, histories, etc. All of that helped me think about Vietnam as war, but only going there helped me think about it as country.
I look forward to another trip to Vietnam, with all of this behind me. What I saw when I was there was interesting and I am sure, with a clearer head and less of my own baggage, I can take the country and its people on their own terms.