The American Experience in Modern-day North Vietnam
As an American-born individual, the most interesting part of traveling in Vietnam, for me, was the history between my country and this one. It’s no secret to most that there was a long, bloody, and extremely controversial war fought between our countries, and to many Americans, especially the ones that grew up during that era, it’s mind-blowing to think our citizens can freely travel there now.
It was not a situation I walked into without trepidation, and though I’m no supporter of American politics, I did acknowledge that there were older people walking around me every day that had once suffered and lost loved ones as they fought tooth and nail with soldiers who walked and talked just like me.
Perhaps the most interesting stop I made in North Vietnam was my visit to the POW prison in Hanoi, once sarcastically referred to by prisoners as the “Hanoi Hilton.” The “Hilton” was a prison built by the French to initially hold Vietnamese Resistance fighters, but after the French were pushed back out of the country, the prison was taken over by the Vietnamese.
Much of the museum that exists there now highlights the oppression and torture instigated on the Vietnamese prisoners by the French. Those exhibits alone offered a very humbling experience.
But there were also two rooms set up to discuss the American POW experience. For me, this was a huge lesson in propaganda as I checked out the displays and videos illustrating what the North Vietnamese teach their people about what went on there – a picture of American war prisoners basically living in a summer camp, is what it seemed like, and the fact that they sarcastically called it the “Hanoi Hilton” was even used to support this claim.
The exhibit also portrayed a war where the North and South of Vietnam were fighting together at the front lines against America, which creates a stark contrast with what the rest of the world is told.
Knowing the history of what really went on in those dark claustrophobic rooms, I found it offensive that the people are still taught this to this day. And again, this comes from someone who is no big supporter of American politics.
This theme of propaganda and North Vietnam’s grip on its people played out through much of my trip. I met former refugees who had spent 20 day boat trips across the ocean, fleeing oppression in the beginning of the war, only to be sent back by the Chinese government years later and thrown in prison. Even today, one man told me, he couldn’t wait to have another chance to escape.
While the Vietnamese War was certainly a controversial subject at the time and mostly people just wanted the troops to come home, thinking we had no business there, it’s important to realize that there were real reasons for America to be weary of the communist government at that time. The reality of this is the citizens who even to this day whisper to foreigners about change, about blocked Facebook, corruption, about fears of jail and worse if they talk against the government.
By no means am I saying my own government is perfect, but I am saying that traveling to other places sometimes makes me realize just how easy I have it compared to others…
But what was most illuminating to me about travel in Vietnam was what I learned about humanity and the ability of humans to forgive. To sit in an orchard with an elder, a man still wearing his old military helmet and army fatigues, and eating fruit with him without a word of the wars our country once fought, to me that is a learning experience in itself.
Ditto the conversations with younger people, my age, who were not alive during the war. Who have lived their whole lives with false ideas still find the curiosity to ask me “why?” And the not having the ability to tell them not only because it would be dangerous for me to do so within Vietnamese borders (likely more so for them than myself) but also because I am not so sure of the answer myself.
If you are American as well and decide to visit Vietnam, especially in the North, don’t ask people questions about the war. Let them ask you. And even then, never be too opinionated or even supportive of their own criticisms of their government. I think you’ll find the best, and safest, skill you can have is that of a good listener.
Seek to understand rather than teach. Seek to experience rather than thoroughly discuss.
I for one was not overly-enthusiastic about everything I experienced in Vietnam, but I do plan to go back. Not because I want to collect stories about being scammed or collect stories about historical sites where people died, but because I too want to know why countries do the things they do – and that applies equally to what the government there does to the people today as to what America and Vietnam did to each other once upon a time.
And mostly, I seek knowledge of the human spirit not only to endure through war by creating fortresses beneath the Earth, entire hospitals and networks of tunnels, but also of the ability for humans to seek understanding and forgiveness through simple human conversation.