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  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

Grappling with memories of a place we've never been before....our short time in Vietnam

Paul and I are children of the 1960's, part of a cohort called Generation Jones (born 1954-1964). We were the kids who grew up watching the Vietnam War on television almost every night. To say that our feelings about the war, the country, and the experience are complicated is an understatement. In many ways, our childhoods were defined by this war - although certainly in different ways from the people who were there. I've been interviewing Generation Jonesers, now in their sixties, and they have confirmed that the Vietnam war is a big part of their memories. The divisive nature of discourse in the United States - similar to what we are seeing today - was prominent in one's views about the war in the 1960's and 1970's. For my parents, who grew up during World War II, the very idea that we might be on the "wrong" side, or at least fighting where we were not wanted, was a bitter pill to swallow, and they struggled for years over it. But we Jonesers - watching the My Lai massacre events unfold in our middle school years - instinctively understood that we were not, at the very least, completely in the "right". I can remember seeing images of that little girl running from the Napalm, and Paul talks about the shock of seeing on television, U.S. soldiers shooting Vietnamese villagers in the head. This was not supposed to be what "we" stood for. Now in our sixties, we rightly condemn the Russian soldiers who rape women and shoot innocent civilians seemingly with abandon in Ukraine, but fail to understand that some American soldiers did the same thing in Vietnam. War does monstrous things to ordinary people - on all sides of a conflict, and our society has seen many Vietnam veterans haunted by terrible memories from their time there.

Looking back, I can see that we at home conflated so many things. We conflated the action of most U.S. soldiers - who were doing the jobs assigned to them & following the rules - with the policies of the U.S. government and the actions of some very bad U.S. soldiers - soldiers who cracked and did all the bad things we condemned in enemy troops. We labeled Vietnamese people "enemies", even though we were supposed to be allies with the people in the South, and most Vietnamese throughout the country were just trying to live their lives as best as they knew how. And then, like now, too many Americans failed to condemn the obviously criminal actions of some U.S. soldiers, leading some of us to conflate support of that conduct with support of all veterans. We treated our veterans poorly when they returned.

When we landed in Vietnam in August, 2023, this sea of conflicting ideas was uppermost in my mind. I heard from a few of my friends who saw our photos on Facebook and mentioned that the last time they were in Danang was in the 1960's, where they were stationed during the war. I had some conversation by messenger with one of them. His experiences in DaNang were frustrating and difficult, with mixed messages from Vietnamese allies as well as U.S. policy-makers. It was not a good experience. What would we find here, in this place we "knew" from our childhood black and white television memories?

What we found was a land of kind, smart, people, stunning landscapes, good food, great coffee, and a rich cultural heritage. While we discovered a few remnants of what people there call the "American War", we encountered a strong desire by the people we met to connect with us in a wholly positive way.

First impressions included amazing coffee. This might sound mundane and irrelevant, but the Vietnamese people we met were clearly proud of their fabulous coffee, and wanted to show it off. In fact, we had some of the best coffee concoctions we've had anywhere in the world. Coffee flavors popped through cold coffees with sugar and milk and the black coffees were robust yet so smooth even I didn't need cream. They had names like Vietnamese white, Coconut Coffee, Egg Coffee, Cold-brew citrus, hand-drip Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Honduran & many others. The Sound of Silence Coffee Shop had especially incredibly delicious coffee. Like all the establishments facing the beach, you could sit out with a view of the ocean and staff would bring you your order, accompanied by big smiles. The Barefoot Beach Club had equally friendly staff, good coffee, and electric outlets to plug in your laptop. We had good breakfasts both places, all quite inexpensive.

Lunch and dinner food by the beach was pretty good, although not as outstanding as the food served by Hoi An old town street vendors. You got the feeling the beach restaurants were catering a little too much to the non-Asian tourists. But there was this little family-owned restaurant next to our hotel, Xin Chào, hosted by the Trang family, that was wonderful. The grandmother did most of the cooking, and the mom and daughters waited tables. There was a palpable pride in serving us home-made recipes emblematic of the region. These were the crispiest spring rolls we had anywhere. We also had outstanding Bahn Mi, eggplant, and variations of fried rice. We did have some outstanding dishes at other places, such as fresh scallops, green papaya salad and a seafood platter.

We had outstanding drinks everywhere, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. They were tasty and also pretty. The Vietnamese love mint and put it in a lot of drinks and foods.

We didn't get to the old town much, although we took a culture tour (more on that) and I bought a suitcase and a North Face backpack (total for both: $62USD), but we did eat dinner at an outstanding restaurant in Old Town hoi An called Phin Cafe. There, we had smoked duck pho, green curry, and a sampler platter. All delicious, set in a lovely courtyard.

In addition to service staff, we saw a lot of construction workers, taxi drivers, fishers, and vendors hard at work. The construction workers were digging trenches in the sand and using bamboo poles to somehow strengthen the beach from storms. They carried bamboo poles back and forth all day in the blazing heat - it was low 90's F to over 100 F daily. The fishers were out before the sun came up, casting their nets from their round "coconut boats". Other vendors called out, trying to sell their services (massage, taxi), or wares, but if you said a firm, "no", they were polite. In the Hoi An Old Town, hawkers and vendors were persistent in trying to get business, but never stepped over the line. There were places that tailor-made clothing for men and women that were ready in 24 hours. There are more motorbikes than cars here, and we saw people hauling enormous loads on their bikes. It was common to see a single person with a giant bag of wares in front and in back on a motorbike. In the photo below, you can see someone hauling bamboo poles - a Vietnamese "pick-up truck", so to speak. One definitely got the feeling of an economy of small entrepreneurs and hard workers.

The natural beauty was everywhere. The ocean views were a frequently-changing palette of blues. You could see islands in front and the city of DaNang in the distance. Flowers were abundant. When we drove to My Son Sanctuary, we passed green rice paddies, blue mountains and calm rivers, and floated down the river at the end of that day in a boat. Swimming in the ocean was pretty much perfect - it was beautiful, uncrowded, nice temperature and wavy without being dangerous.

I got up early one day to capture the sunrise and I was not disappointed.

We were also surrounded by a rich culture, one that goes back over a thousand years. We took a culture tour of Hoi An old town, and our guide, Minh - a delightful, smart, charming young man explained the layered history of the town, beginning with the old Champas culture that started in the nearby mountains (related to India and of the Hindu faith and custom), connecting to Vietnamese and Chinese cultures and kingdoms; with a bit of old Japanese influence. These cultures blended in Hoi An, living side by side, and some of the old houses still stand. One in particular houses a Chinese family whose ancestors have lived there for over three hundred years. We saw a musical showcase with dancers, musicians, and a Vietnamese opera singer. We saw work being done to restore an old Japanese bridge, gifted to the city from Japan. We heard about the achievement of having the old town designated a UNESCO heritage site, which Minh's father was a part of. Minh works for Momo Travel, an agency founded by a former student of Minh's, with highly educated guides dedicated to productive and honest conversations. We booked through Airbnb experiences and the cost was $22 USD per person.

We took a Vietnamese cooking class, traveling about 5km to the home of a family who teaches tourists to cook using traditional methods. There were six of us in the group - a German couple, a Swiss couple, and the two of us. Our teacher, Mai, was funny and engaging, and clear in her instruction. Miraculously, she helped us prepare a delicious four-course meal consisting of a rice pancake, garlic fish sauce, spring rolls, chicken stir fry and green papaya salad, all made in the traditional manner. We booked through Airbnb experiences and the cost was $19USD per person, which included all the food (we ate the full meal we had prepared).

The highlight of our cultural experience was a day trip to the My Son Sanctuary. We booked this directly from their website, Venus Travel, and the cost for the all-day trip including air conditioned bus, tour, boat ride and bahn mi sandwiches was $22 USD per person. The sanctuary was built by the Champs at the height of their influence between the 4th to the 13th centuries. The remains of many Hindu tower-like temples stand today. Let that sink in - these structures were built over 1,000 years ago. Modern efforts to understand their significance began by French explorers in the late 19th century. You can see stone carvings written in ancient Sanskrit, and brick carvings using technology that nobody fully understands today. The site is now a UNESCO heritage site. We drove through the mountainside & villages, and past rivers. We later rode a boat down the river to Old Town where we saw the famous lanterns lighting the sky.

Which brings us back to the Vietnam War (or, the American War, as it is called there). These ancient temples were a hiding place of the Viet Cong during the war, and they were bombed by Americans. The largest temple, which had been standing since the 10th century was reduced to a rubble pile of bricks. After the war, the site was littered with land mines and unexploded bombs, which had to be carefully defused over decades. You can see one of the (defused) bombs inside one of the temples, as shown below. When I asked if this was an American bomb, our guide said, "Yes. A lot of Americans apologize, but it isn't your fault."

It's been 48 years since the end of the war, at least for us. The end came during our senior year of high school, just in time to prevent Paul and other male members of my cohort from having to join the lottery for the draft. When we asked our culture tour guide how modern Vietnamese view that war, he said from their point of view, it was a war between superpowers (Russia, China, and the U.S.) and their country was just a proxy. Most Vietnamese were not ideological, and just wanted the wars to end. Because, for most of Vietnam's history, there has been war. The Chinese have fought there for centuries, followed by the French, the Japanese then the Russians and Americans; after 1975, there was more war involving China, Cambodia, Thailand and others for some years.

From a pragmatic point of view, many there believe a Communist government is necessary to prevent the Chinese from invading. And, the Communist government has been a mixed bag. He said a U.S. trade embargo after the U.S. withdrew in 1975 created a lot of difficulty, and he remembers food rations. But, he said, after the U.S. ended its embargo in 1994, ordinary Vietnamese have had a much better life. Like Russia and China, Vietnam has added capitalist elements to its economy. Poverty rates have drastically declined in the last decade. The cost of living is quite low - Vietnam was by far the least expensive place we have visited since we started our travels. COVID measures were by and large successful. But, Human Rights Watch indicates the government suppresses freedoms including religion and speech. Opponents to the government are sometimes put in jail. It is still a one-party system. While officially nonreligious, most Vietnamese identify in some way as Buddhist, and practice many Buddhist rituals quite openly. There is some limited freedom of religion for Christians, Hindus and others, guaranteed in a limited way in their Constitution.

Our guide tells us he sees promise in the approach of the younger generation (he is 39). He says rather than fighting the government with protests and conflict, they take individual responsibility for fixing things. He gives an example of local villagers in Hoi An dramatically cleaning the river than runs through town, and slowly gaining support from the government. His views seem right to us - that ordinary people need to act on their conscience as best they can, as pragmatically as they can, when they can. I think the younger generations in the U.S. have a similar approach to fixing things.

I want to end this post with a song that reflects this philosophy. I thought about anti-war songs, of which there are many, from the Vietnam era in the U.S. - songs like "War, what is it good for (absolutely nothing)" or "Where have all the flowers gone?" or "Blowin' in the wind" or "Imagine" - all worthy choices. But I find my inspiration in a song written in 1955 to promote international understanding called "Let there be peace on Earth (and let it begin with me). Paul pointed out that this song sounds a little "churchy" - even though I have stripped its patriarchal and religious language from it (if I didn't I would be haunted by my feminist minister Aunt Donna). But, it was a favorite song of my Aunt Donna (and the title of the song is on her gravestone). It was written around the beginning of American involvement in Vietnam. I learned it as a child. And, it expresses the philosophy our guide articulated - let it begin with me. I write this from Osaka, Japan, 330km from Hiroshima. And, I am mindful of this homestead called Earth suffering so many climate emergencies just in the past six months. I think about the people in Maui, Hawaii, who cannot know peace with raging fire destroying their homes. So I offer this song as a wish and a commitment. Someday I hope civilization can move past war & destruction, including the destruction of our planet. Someday. In the meantime, the world will get better when we visit each other - even places that conjure difficult memories. If we've learned anything from our sojourn, it is that good people live everywhere.

To hear Kim sing "Let there be peace on Earth" click here.

To help people in Maui by giving money to a fund directly managed by Kim's 'ukelele/voice teacher, Pamela Polland, (a resident of Kula, Hawaii) click here.

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