I think it’s impossible – at least I hope it is – to be an American traveling through Vietnam and not be periodically overwhelmed with the thoughts, sorrows, guilt, tears, imagined horrors and ultimate futility of the Vietnam War, or as it’s called here, the American War.
There are moments when I’ve been in a city, like Hue, or passing through one, like Da Nang that is tied so closely to the history of that war, and I am haunted by what might have happened here, what soldiers both American and Vietnamese saw or experienced, and how utterly, frightfully different that existence was to my current one.
And there are moments when I’ve been asked by local Vietnamese where I’m from, and as I reply, “America,” I feel an instant of embarrassment – where I want to offer an, “And I’m really sorry about the devastating war fought on your soil.” But no one seems phased by my citizenship; they’re usually mildly interested, happy even. American-made or -themed music, movies, fast food, clothes, air fresheners (American flag patterned), and even bathroom sinks (American Standard) are all considered pretty cool and stylish these days in ‘Nam. I’d say embracing America’s culture takes an amazing amount of either forgiveness or forgetting. I’m not sure which.
Then there are the moments when I cannot stop crying, like after I finished the extraordinary and heartbreaking book, “Matterhorn,” an absolute must-read novel on the Vietnam War. Regardless of where you’re reading that book – at home in the States or on former fighting grounds, it’s gutwrenching. But there I was, reading it from the comfort of my beach bungalow in Mui Ne, Vietnam and I was struck the absolute and utter uselesness of that damn war. All the death, all the emotional devastation – and for what? So that decades later, few here in Vietnam would seem to care, and an American traveler can sit and enjoy her blissful life in an idyllic Vietnamese resort town?
These questions and thoughts have followed me for these 5 weeks, and were never more present than at the War Remnants Museum (formerly the Museum of American War Crimes) here in Saigon. It’s not easy to see the weapons – my country’s weapons – captured and on display to indicate the terror we helped create – and which we faced, in turn – in the midst of a conflict we needn’t have joined. Of course those terrors were two-sided – a fact that is never more evident than in the museum’s brilliant photography exhibit “Requiem,” featuring the work of photojournalists embedded with US troops.
And yes, throughout the museum it’s obvious that many of the display descriptions are sorely propagandist; still there’s no denying the My Lai massacre, or napalm, or the ultimate effects of Agent Orange.
While in Saigon, I spent time with an American expat and journalist who is also a Vietnam War Veteran. I was stunned trying to understand what his experience must be like; how a Veteran in particular can come to terms with person and place while here. Still, I guess I wasn’t entirely surprised by what he told me. It seems returning to Vietnam was the one act that finally brought him peace. “My nightmares have stopped,” he said.