Thoughts of an American in Vietnam on Liberation Day

I was a bit afraid to come to Vietnam. No, I wasn’t worried about being an American in Vietnam. It just seemed like there were plenty of horror stories occasionally mixed in with the “It’s an interesting place” vague ones.

Okay, yes I was a little concerned about how I would be received. Not like I expected to be attacked or anything. It’s just. . .

Complicated.

American in Vietnam, Hanoi traffic

Even though I was very young during the Vietnam War, it was still something I grew up with. By the time I was old enough to understand anything in particular, I was trying to figure out the continuing debate. Vietnam was blamed for a lot of things, including being offered up as a reason why my biological . . . paternal unit allegedly abandoned me and wanted nothing to do with the woman who gave birth to me.

We learned only a little about the war in school. Generally, the focus was on major battles, the draft, how evil the Viet Cong were, American deaths, the life of POWs, and how vets were treated upon their return.

School ignored the plight of the Vietnamese people, a population that is compromised of 54 ethnic groups.

By the time I was in my teens, the war was in the background except for the occasional disturbing movie. Although racism against Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians (all lumped in together) still was rampant among my peers. I ended up on the unexpected side of it when my first teenage girlfriend happened to be Vietnamese.

Our relationship was a very brief one because of reactions from her friends and her family. Her family still had fresh memories of what they had fled. They also had not been treated well by people with the same skin color as myself. And mixing races was still not “kosher” in many cultural groups.

Growing up during the Cold War also programmed me heavily to have a healthy fear of communist governments. Visiting Cuba helped me feel more at ease, but I’m still a bit nervous when entering a communist-run country. Don’t you just love brainwashing?

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Later on in life I had the opportunity to work with several Vietnam vets both in the hospital and in hospice. It was the latter environment that introduced me to more of the dark realities behind the cleansed version we were treated to in school.

I will never forget one man who could not face his internal demons more completely before he lost the ability to communicate. The things he had done and seen left him writhing in emotional agony during his final days. We did everything we could to address his distress. His agony was so extreme that finally many of us on the team begged our doctor to apply palliative sedation. It was the only way we could provide him some peace.

I would eventually be connected with my paternal unit and his side of the family. He had served two tours in Vietnam, and an uncle had served as well. The PU had been in the Navy and Air Force, so he did not have the experiences that those on the ground have shared.

Shortly before he took his own life, he had sent me some of the chapters from the memoirs he was working on. The darkness he shared from his experiences was powerful but still very limited compared to that of my former patients.

American in Vietnam, Hanoi

I was curious, but I still wondered about coming to Vietnam.

Aside from all the bad things I heard from fellow travelers, I wanted to see the country that had figured so prominently in my life and had left such a dark stain in my country’s history. I was curious to see what had changed. I also love living in and exploring less-developed countries, and Vietnam definitely falls under that umbrella.

As we prepared to come here, I wondered if I should claim another country’s citizenship when asked by locals in the street. How would they respond to an American in Vietnam?

Especially now! Our arrival has coincided with the 38th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon (also known as the Liberation of Saigon), the day that the last remaining Americans (and other anti-communism forces) were driven out of Vietnam.

So how is Liberation Day celebrated?

Well, if it weren’t for the pretty decorations and the red flags & banners flying everywhere, you probably wouldn’t know it’s a holiday. In speaking with some locals, it seems the holiday is celebrated by travel. That’s pretty much it.

No fireworks. No wild partying. No tanks parading down the main street.

I was surprised until I learned that between 65-75% of the population was born after the Fall. While it is part of their history, the majority of the population did not grow up during those days and is more removed from it. Most of the monuments we saw in Hanoi were dedicated to independence from France in the mid-40s. The infamous Hanoi Hilton itself is mostly office buildings and apartments now.  Only the gatehouse remains as a museum.

American in Vietnam

Do the Vietnamese care that we’re American?

When I respond I’m from the US, they don’t even blink. “You buy hat?”

Yes, I feel kind of stupid. I don’t completely understand my war-based fears considering I’ve traveled enough to know better. Yet, there they were, stirring quietly in the back of my mind. Even when waiting for our passports to be returned with our visas, I expected at least questions.

All I got was: “Two people? 90 dollar.” I handed him a crisp one hundred-dollar bill, and he unceremoniously handed me our passports and change before moving on to the next person in line.

I could easily beat myself up for my naivete and silliness, but instead I’ll focus on the positive—I came anyway. I didn’t let fear, doubt, or other people’s experiences stop me from having my own.

Sure, Hanoi is horribly noisy and chaotic. It doesn’t feel as safe as other places I’ve been. The food isn’t as good as Thailand or Malaysia. Most of the people in Hanoi are the opposite of the friendly Thais and Malaysians we’ve encountered over the last few months. Crossing the street is an exercise in overcoming fear, using intuition, and is a good exercise for peripheral vision. Walking down the sidewalks is, as someone else described, a full contact sport.

Now we’re in Dalat where the temperatures are cooler, the city is more relaxed, and the people are much more friendly.

So, how is it being an American in Vietnam?

I’m in love with it.

Have you ever been nervous about going somewhere? Where was it? How did you handle it?

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13 Comments

  1. This was very interesting for me to hear your perspective as a young child and teen in the U.S. during this time period.

    I was supposed to be born in Vietnam but my father and my thai mother did not want me to have the “stigma” of being born in Vietnam. So my dad flew my mother back to Thailand where i was born and then a few weeks later we went back to Vietnam until we eventually went back to live in Thailand near the end of the war.

    After my mother passed away we moved to California where people mistook me for Mexican, a stupid one at that because I did not understand one word of English and only spoke french and Thai. LOL.

    Like you, I noticed that the Asian kids got miss treated especially Vietnamese and was afraid to tell people that I was half Asian. San Jose California has one of the biggest populations of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. Luckily, these days, it’s not such a big issue.

    Anyways, I have always wondered what it would be like to be in Vietnam on the anniversary of liberation day. I hope to revisit Vietnam soon. Maybe this summer. I just need to convince my hubby who has some of the same brainwashing that you spoke about. :)
    Annie André recently posted..Visit BlackPool: England’s Answer To Las VegasMy Profile

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    • Have him read my Vietnam posts. Maybe that will help change his mind. We’re here for just over 3 more weeks, so I’ll have plenty of fodder for him. :)

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Wow! I always felt so bad for the Asian kids. It made no sense to me why people were being so mean to them. They most certainly didn’t deserve it.

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  2. I sure hope you have plans to visit Hue and Hoi An. Central Vietnamese food is the best, in our opinion. Can’t get enough of those cao lầu Noodles, and they’re just not the same any where else.

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    • Not this trip. We’ve been moving around too much the last few months, so we’re staying put in Dalat for a few weeks to slow things down. But we’ll be back. SO much more of Vietnam we need to see and experience.

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  3. Interesting thoughts, Talon. I can understand your anxiety, considering you have so much more personal connection with Vietnam than the war. I hope writing it down helps. Writing can be so therapeutic!

    I haven’t ever had anxiety in a particular country, but I do admit, when Bush was in office I was traveling Europe and claimed to be Canadian once in a while. Can you blame me? :)
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    • Oh man. I was in Europe during that time as well and was SO tempted to play Canadian! I totally understand.

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  4. Had to smile when I read this Talon. I went to Vietnam in 2007, with more than a little trepidation. I was a child of the Vietnam era, and the trip was something of a catharsis for me, as I was totally opposed to it when it was happening. It was my first stop on my first round-the-world trip, and I’ll never forget the impact when I learned the Vietnamese refer to it as “The American War.” It opened up my eyes to cultural difference, but also to the fact that all human beings are more alike than different, which set the tone for all my subsequent writing. re you going to Saigon (HCMC)? I liked it much better than Hanoi, which has a much darker, sluggish feel to it.
    Barbara Weibel recently posted..PHOTO: At Night, Golden Light Pours From the Cabildo Museum in New OrleansMy Profile

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    • I think it’s definitely an appropriate name considering everything. :(

      I so agree about discovering that all humans are more alike than different. Sure, we have some cultural things, but generally we’re not really different at all.

      Yes, we’ll be in HCMC for a few days. We opted to spend more time in Dalat to slow some of our travel down because we’ve been moving much faster than we like.

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