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Bruce Bialosky

Confronting Our Past: Visiting Vietnam

No one over the age of 50 (and certainly a lot that are younger) can hear the name “Vietnam” and not react in some way. The war consumed our national psyche for so many years. When people found out a visit to the country was part of our vacation, some communicated they could not or would not go. The feeling is akin the Jews not wanting to visit Germany. Nevertheless, we forged on to confront our past.

Landing in Hanoi alone brought back memories. Hanoi was formerly the capital of North Vietnam — now the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. We did not get far before we saw the first conical hat, which is called a “leaf hat” by the locals. That struck home, conjuring up thoughts of the Viet Cong that we fought for all those years.

Once we drove 40 minutes on the new highway from the recently expanded airport, we began to get a sense of the city. We drove through the commercial area to our new home for three days in Hanoi – the Metropole Hotel where Trump and Kim met. We asked around upon arrival, but no one had seen Trump because of the heavy security.

When you start to move around the city, you see why the meeting was here as this is a country truly transitioning to modern times. It is safe and clean with very favorable feelings toward Americans. You can understand why. Although it is still a centrally controlled economy, Vietnamese are allowing people to start their own businesses. And these people are thriving capitalists. Between the shops, the street merchants, the ubiquitous motor scooters and the famous street food, one senses life is evolving into the modern world. It has only been 44 years since the end of the war and 33 years since they began evolving the economy and 25 years since they normalized relations with the U.S.

We did not fully begin to delve into the thoughts of the people until we had an extensive discussion with our tour guide en route to Ha Long Bay, one of most famous destinations in the area. The bay is off the Gulf of Tonkin (remember that?) and is a World Heritage site. It is quite remarkable to behold. Our guide advised “you have not been to Vietnam if you did not go to Ha Long Bay.”

The bustling tourism trade (10 million visitors each year) was fully evident at the picturesque bay as you traversed the estimated 1,969 limestone islands, only 40 of which are inhabited. It seemed like all 10 million were moving through the islands at the same time. All of the estimated 500 boats (some ship size) wiggled their way through the island passages, and many were staying for a night or two.

On the long drive from Hanoi to the Bay, our guide, Tien, told us all about his life and how he was part of the lucky generation that really began to come of age after 1986. He told us he was fortunate because when he went to school in the mid-1990’s, the country had switched from everyone learning Russian to everyone learning English. Good decision. This was right after President Clinton had re-established relations in 1994.

He grew up dirt poor, walking to school barefoot and hungry. We talked about the war and I told him we had not fought the Vietnamese people; we fought communism. He understood it was a proxy war. I told him Americans don’t hold grudges against countries. We were not colonialists like the French. He expressed how much he liked Americans and learned English from watching our movies and TV shows.

How things have changed in Vietnam. Most everyone has a smartphone. Wi-Fi is readily available everywhere.

We did a half-day tour around Hanoi that included three special aspects. The first was eating street food like the locals. This is different than eating tacos on the streets of Tijuana. Street food is a very developed part of the culture. Second, we went to the Notorious Black Market where stall after stall was selling goods of questionable origin — mainly parts to service the ever-present motor bikes.

Most importantly we went to the prison that became known by all Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton.” This was the place where John McCain was imprisoned. Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French in the late 19th century to house Vietnamese prisoners. Conditions were quite uncivilized, to say the least. Just to give you an idea of the cruelty, there were two guillotines used by the French. They used those devices up until the time they left in 1954. No wonder locals hated them.

Just experiencing a normal day in Vietnam can be a staggering challenge as it is quite warm and humid. That is while wearing shorts and t-shirts. Can you imagine what American soldiers experienced in full gear with heavy backpacks? You now understand why our soldiers hated this place. Then imagine McCain in this cruel, archaic prison. Then think about the fact that he refused release because he was a high-ranking Admiral’s son. Who among us would do that?

Discussion regarding who won the war in Vietnam continues today. I have always thought it was a struggle along the road to defeating the Soviet Union. Once you are here it becomes quite clear who won. There are two forms of cash accepted here: The Vietnamese Dong that goes at about 23,000 to one U.S. Dollar, and the U.S. Dollar. The dollar is quoted virtually everywhere alongside the Dong. We were even told that while visiting a small village that they preferred we leave their tip in dollars. Every t-shirt if not by a well-known designer has phrases in English that could be seen around any U.S. city.

Combined this with the fact they are all learning English in school, and you tell me who won the war.