[Vietnam] A country – NOT a war


My first day of Asian History in a public high school in Washington DC, a pan of the room and I found myself a loner amidst a group of American Caucasians. Considering the content of the course, all attention veered towards the obviously Asian girl across the room, as the teacher asked where I was from. “Vietnam”, I replied, to which the teacher posed to the class “What do we all know about Vietnam?” Hands popped to the air, as 8 proclaimed “Vietnam War”, while one boy enthusiastically shouted “Rambo”, and that was the end of it.

Throughout my next 6 years of living and meeting people in America, I would come to realize that in most minds here, Vietnam is seen no more than the notion of the “Vietnam War”. It’s a historical period so engrained in the memory of Americans and so popular for the anti-war spirit it inspired in American and global youths during the 1960s, that it has become the only perception most people have of Vietnam.

I’ve met people, who, in our second or third conversation, would hesitate before reticently asking me “So, do Vietnamese people still hate Americans?” or stories of veterans, who fear ever coming back to Vietnam not purely because of the revival of traumatic experiences but mostly, because they unconsciously assume that Vietnamese people “are not over it”.

Terminology-wise, first off, Vietnamese people have never referred to the period between 1954 and 1975 as the Vietnam War. It was never our choice to bring war upon us and naming the intentional efforts of the American government to colonize Vietnam – the Vietnam War, to Vietnamese people, is incomprehensible. Given our 1,000 years of rule by the Chinese and 100 years of colonization by the French before, the American invasion would be known simply as the American war.

I don’t blame the general knowledge of Vietnam being limited to the notion of war. We are, after all, a nation shaped by war and resistance, losing generations of Vietnamese to the battlefield while our society, today, is still riddled with unresolved consequences from the war. 37 years after the guns have fallen silent, ordinances and mines still dot our terrain threatening to explode at any minute and children born today live still with congenital disabilities due to the effects of Agent Orange. While the war is an inseparable part of Vietnam’s identity, however,  it is not the whole of it.

Hundreds of years of colonization have taught the Vietnamese to fully embrace their achieved independence and nearly 4 decades have been enough to see the Southeast Asian nation forge ahead first off, economically and more so, mentally past the war.

In sentiments to Americans, when he was alive, my grandfather, a witness to and active citizen in Vietnamese resistance against both the French and American invasion, stressed how many Vietnamese during and more so, after the war understood that it was the then American government and not the American people that their generation was fighting. While Vietnamese people may hold resentment towards the war, and what it took away and left behind in its course of destruction, I believe I speak for many when I say, we don’t hold a grudge towards the US as a nation and certainly not as a people. Let me take half a step back on my word to also note that there is no divide between black and white here, we must understand that even though it was a war between Vietnamese and Americans, there were Vietnamese on the side of Americans and Americans supporting the cause of the Vietnamese.  That grey area alone offers space for many questions and analysis into how the war was perceived then and even now. The opinion provided here is therefore, my general prospective on Vietnam today.

There are the Americans who fought endlessly against the American war in Vietnam, actively so in the series of protests iconic of the 1960s. There are then are untold stories of American youths who came to Vietnam to volunteer and even American veterans who only realized the war’s lack of purpose when their fingers hovered over the trigger on the battlefront. Vietnamese people receive their stories and sentiments with an open mind and hospitality.

I won’t go into how the economic growth has affected Vietnam, the perks and downsides are 100 posts in themselves, but it has certainly changed the face of Vietnam – a nation constantly struggling to balance the concept of communism, which had pulled it through the war, with its aspirations now to compete with its capitalist counterparts in becoming an economically-thriving country. You could say, Vietnamese society like any other modern society has a range of multi-faceted issues to face with, everything ranging from rising petrol prices, to motorbike congestion, to support to the shrinking rurality, to your everyday tabloid story about celebrities showing too much skin. It has so much to look forward to and so much to deal with rather than hold itself in a standstill to lament the war. This is not to say it should neglect working upon resolving the aforementioned consequences of war.

The S-shaped nation is also a beautiful one, a melting pot of cultures with its 53 ethnic groups and call me biased, but it has one of the best cuisines in the world.  Vietnam is imbued with history and culture. It stands at a crossroad between the old and new, the oriental and occidental, tradition and innovation, it aspires to grow, it struggles to face with daily national and regional challenges, it is in its own right, a country, NOT a war.

PS: this was from a short exercise this afternoon in class – very much not well analysed, sorry 😦

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6 thoughts on “[Vietnam] A country – NOT a war

  1. I have always thought that the British are always ahead of everybody in terms of civilization but it’s really not. But to be honest, the Vietnam War was indeed a very nasty cut in our history and it’s not easy for us to hide that scar from the rest of the world. It’ll take quite some time for us to do that unless we have a particularly significant thing that make the world remember. Well, It’s up to our generation to do that and hopefully it’s not far away 🙂

  2. One of the most emotional films I ever saw, without exaggeration, was a documentary about the My Lai Massacre, where an American platoon called Charlie company was sent on a mission to find and hunt down Vietnamese soldiers, supposedly hiding out in large numbers, in a village in My Lai province. This was around 1967-68. However, upon arrival, only women, children and old people were found inside the village. Accounts many vary, however, on that day, American troops of Charlie company murdered between 300 to 500 people, mostly women, children and old people—not to use loaded language but these people were basically helpless, defend-less civilians at the mercy of an heavily-armed American platoon whose primary order was, apparently, a strategic attack & capture of Vietnamese soldiers (?!), not senseless massacre. There are also evidence of rape, torture of the My Lai villagers by the American troops before they were murdered and have their houses, property burned to the ground. My guess is these people are what’s left of a family when the men of the household were called to the front lines.

    The moment I choked up and started crying (probably the only movie I ever cried to) was a scene where a couple naked kids, including a girl ran back and forth on the village road littered with dead bodies, rice field canals that ran blood, in the background, their village in flames, shouting something like “Chu oi, cuu chau voi…”—shouting that to an American solider. And I think I cried because I saw that as a child’s plead to an adult when she thinks she’s in trouble. That little girl, she probably couldn’t comprehend what was going on around her—the killing, the hatred, the violence …how her grandmother and sister where mere rifle targets, caught between a shoot-out of conflicting ideologies, and were not seen as real people, innocent human beings. A captain of Charlie company when years later testify in court, said he was shooting at a thing which he was evil named Communism and that he was just following orders.

    But more than provoking a very strong emotional response from me, this film gave me a realistic understanding of the collateral damage of war. Years later, when the film crew found and interviewed the actual soldiers of Charlie company, now carrying on with their lives, and living with their guilt. Most if not all, of these soldiers suffer extreme psychological scars, many are on medication, some have committed suicide, the rest lived broken lives, alone, deeply depressed and deeply regretful of their actions. It seems that they too, were caught in the heat of the moment, of war, of propaganda, of frustration, of loneliness due to long tours and harsh conditions, and simply snapped. Slowly and resentfully, I saw the human behind the murders as well. It’s a very confusing, visceral experience, honestly.

    I know that was heavy, but I enjoyed your article and thought I might share something. I hope it might lead you to new questions for yourself, too, about the Vietnam or American War.

    Here’s the picture of the girl I was referring to:

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