Going to college during the Vietnam War transformed my life. Because of my sheltered upbringing, I was rudely awakened. I learned the meaning of imperialism, and with that the lack of justice at home in a class- and race-based hierarchical society. It was a time of worldwide uprisings and I began to study Third World liberation movements. My first big demonstration was in 1967 just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, when I tried to help the Yippies levitate the Pentagon. I marched almost every weekend during my junior and senior years at Boston University, either locally or in the massive demonstrations in DC. And I continued marching at San Francisco State University, where I went to graduate school. So even though I did not fight in the Vietnam War or even know that much about the country, these formative experiences based on the US war in Vietnam set the direction of my life.
For some years I have had a vague notion that I really should go to Vietnam, since it had played such an important role in my life, although indirectly. Now that I am retired and privileged to have a decent pension and savings, I recently had the chance to make the trip. I went with fourteen other folks from the US, UK, France, and South Africa through the National Geographic Society on a two-week tour from north to south.
Vietnamese history is a long sequence of occupation by foreign invaders and struggles for self-determination. The Vietnamese were ruled by the Chinese for the first thousand years of their recorded history. The French began their colonial conquest in 1859, and by 1887 they occupied the entire region of Indochina. During World War Two, the Japanese took over from 1940 to 1945. Ho Chi Minh proclaimed independence in 1945, but the French again intervened and formed a government under the former emperor, Bao Dai. The Vietnamese Viet Minh forces defeated the French at the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu. And under the 1954 Geneva Accords, the country was divided into North Vietnam under the control of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communist Party, and South Vietnam with a puppet government under US domination. The puppet government in the south was finally overthrown by the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist forces) in 1975, and the country was reunited.
Some readers will have seen the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC., a stone wall monument with the names of the 58,000 US military people who died in Vietnam. Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen makes the point that people see war through their own lenses. Americans see the 58,000 dead, but the Vietnamese experienced up to three million killed (including two million civilians), another two million injured, and 300,000 missing. Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote that a wall like the one in DC with the same spacing of names for the Vietnamese dead would be nine miles long!
Names of the DeadMy biggest shock after arrival was to realize that Vietnam is now an up-and-coming international tourist destination. 15.6 million visitors arrived in 2018, and they expect 18 million this year! It is not easy to sort out, but our guide said that tourism accounts for 10-15% of the economy. This includes massive construction of tourist facilities all over the country, from eco-lodges in rural communities to fancy hotels in the big cities.
My second shock was to realize that the country is undergoing incredibly fast development. Annual GDP growth averages about 6.5% for the past twenty years. Per capita income is now just under $6000/year, and Vietnam is classified as a lower-middle income country, along with countries such as Egypt and Nigeria. All quality of life indexes are also rising. Although we saw few very poor people, inequality is rising along with this fast development. Most people still lead difficult lives, as farmers in the countryside or workers in the cities. And with the demise of socialist policies starting between 1986 and 1990, there are few government services to help those struggling to get by.
Unlike my own motivation, and because of this tourist boom, most people on the tour seemed to be there to have a fun vacation. Some were there to eat the wonderful food, see the rice paddies and beautiful pagodas, and adventure on boats and motorbikes in the countryside. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but few exhibited much knowledge of what the Vietnamese call the “American War,” or serious interest in the history and politics of the country. However, the tour took us to some important historical and political sites, and I was able to go to more on my own. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex in Hanoi which includes the Presidential Palace, Ho’s simple house, and a beautiful pagoda and gardens is well worth a visit. The Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution in Hanoi and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) are particularly informative and moving, particularly for American tourists who may be shaken by what they see.
Vietnam is a young country demographically. Only 15% of the population is age 55 or older. That means that most people were children or not yet even born when the war finished in 1975. But younger people must hear about the war and its effects on society from their elders, and there is still a significant number of the new generations with genetic disabilities passed down from the effects of the US use of the toxic defoliant, Agent Orange. Although people know their history and are clearly nationalistic, one gets the feeling that most people want to look forward and not dwell on the past too much. One of the best t-shirts that I saw said “Vietnam is a country, not a war.” People are proud of their struggle for national independence and vibrant culture. They uphold Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist leader, but there is little mention of his government’s now-abandoned socialist policies. Although they must have some ambivalence about the massive number of tourists, they benefit from the jobs and dynamic economic growth.
So Who Won the War?
Americans generally think that the Vietnamese won the war. But all of our guides said that no one won the war. It is hard to think of the three million Vietnamese who died in that struggle and the massive toxic damage from Agent Orange and say that the country won. On the other hand, one purpose of the US administrations at the time of the war was to stop the development of an alternative society outside the capitalist framework that could be used as a model for other countries of the region or elsewhere. On that point, the US certainly succeeded. Vietnam is now fully integrated into the world economy and practices an extreme form of capitalism, without the usual safety net and government services seen in developed capitalist countries. American culture is making significant inroads. Vietnamese karaoke partiers sing along to American pop songs. Although Vietnamese food is tasty and nutritious, McDonald’s and KFC are increasing their presence. Perhaps it is most accurate to say that the international capitalist system is the winner.