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Published: March 31st 2014
From Huế we bussed north toward Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng, with a stop at the Demilitarized zone that formerly divided Vietnam between north and south. There we stood on a bridge over the Ben Hai river and visited the war museum and some of the underground tunnels the North Vietnamese lived in during the war.
Such a complicated mythology surrounds the Vietnam war in America; my generation has grown up with the questions it raised. It entered our popular culture, especially through films and books written by ex-POWs and men that fought there. And we have family members and close friends that served during that war. Decades after it ended pundits still discuss the repercussions and legacy of American's involvement; we are immersed in it. So much so that when we first arrived in Vietnam we weren't sure how we'd be received - after all, Matt is an American and travels on a U.S. passport. But we were surprised to see U.S. flags everywhere, on scooters, t-shirts and hats. There are a lot of Americans and Canadians in Vietnam, more than we've seen anywhere else on our travels in SE Asia thus far, and many of them have chosen to settle
Ho Chi Minh
"Uncle Ho" is still everywhere - in restaurants, shops, on billboards and in government offices. Here he leads a parade.
and build lives here.
It seems that for us history in Vietnam ended with the end of the war, but here, of course, time marched on. After the war came the building of a whole new country under communism and the work of creating a mythology of their own. So many of the people you see in the towns and cities are young and have been raised on a very different story than ours. So a dichotomy has taken root. This was perfectly illustrated on our last day in Huế when we were surprised by a parade of children dressed in camouflage carrying cardboard AK-47s and pushing plywood tanks, celebrating their victory over the "American Imperialists" while at the same time stopping to shake our hands and wave hello.
From what we have gleaned it seems many people here consider the war with the French and the Vietnam (American) War as one long war for independence without any distinction between fighting off the colonial yoke and fighting against or for communism. In fact, nowhere we have toured or spoken with people have we heard anything about communism. Rather they talk about a reunified Vietnam and an independent Vietnam
but of course this could be the result of communism itself. Usually the whole concept of communism is remote to us, people seem to live quite freely without obvious repression in their day to day lives, but the reality is that they do not vote here. There is only one political party.
The types of shops people are allowed to open are strictly regulated as are the products stocked on shelves. Every corner store has pretty much the exact same thing, it's hard to find anything different or original. Facebook and Twitter are partially blocked. Medical care lags far behind other countries even though there seems to be a lot of money floating around. Trying to find a bookstore is exhausting; there are very few books for sale anywhere and the English language ones that we find are usually pirated copies of translated Vietnamese books about the war. I have picked up several but can't find even one written by someone who opposed communism. In this case, certainly, history has been told only from the side of the victors. In fact our guide at the tunnels told us quite matter of factly that "every Vietnamese was fighting the Americans,
both Northern and Southern." She was young, under 30, and told the group this without a hint of a doubt. We have heard very little about the soldiers from the South Vietnamese Army except whispers that the reason so many cyclo drivers are from the South is because they are ex-South Vietnam army and there weren't any other jobs available to them.
The government is riddled with corruption. The other day I was reading an opinion piece in the newspaper about corruption in the civil service. The writer questioned the policy (originally introduced during the war) of cadres reviewing the performance of their own bosses. Corrupt officials rise to the top by currying favours and paying bribes which creates a situation where the most duplicitous and corrupt individuals succeed. The article went on to suggest that perhaps the heads of departments should evaluate the people working beneath them and not the other way around. It's times like this, when I'm having a croissant and coffee on the deck of a lovely café and I'm finally starting to feel at home here, that I'm thrown for a loop. It's as if I've gone back in time. We are living in
Bunker and Loudspeakers at the DMZ
Used during the war to blast propaganda
a communist country and I still can't quite figure out exactly what that means.
As a Canadian that was born in the late 60's, I am already somewhat removed from the greater conversation about the war. But it's a topic Matt and I pick up and drop at least once a day here. More than anything, we ask each other questions. How do the Vietnamese really feel about Americans and the War? How does communism restrict their lives today? Is the country truly reunited, after so much bitter infighting?
There are contradictions here. The contradiction between the stories we've heard and the stories they've heard. The contradiction of a bloody and brutal war fought against the French and the Americans which somehow left no visible hatred toward their former enemies. The contradiction between the popular history of a united Vietnam and the vision of streets full of aging South Vietnamese Army veterans who will never be hired to do anything besides pedal a bike. And the contradiction between a bustling, productive, and vibrant society with the lurking reminders that you cannot always buy, read, or say whatever you want. As an outsider, and one that has been raised
DMZ Flag Tower
Steps lead to the Viet Nam Flag
with a completely different story and in a very different culture, the one thing I'm sure of is that I am probably the least qualified person to comment.
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