Having grown up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the United States at a time when we were engaged in a military conflict in Vietnam, the Vietnam War (or as referred to in Vietnam as “The American War”) was overriding our daily lives. Whether we served in active duty in the military, we had family members serving our country, whether we were in college and excused from military service due to our college deferments, or whether we supported or protested the war, it consumed our minds and our lives every single day.
Each day did not go by that during the thirty minute evening newscasts on the major television networks, we would learn from Walter Cronkite and other network news anchors of the latest battles which had just occurred in Vietnam. We would hear of the gains and losses in territory, the number of deaths that day in lost American lives, North Vietnamese army regulars and Viet Cong soldiers. We would also witness videos of the battles, losses, atrocities committed, and the anti-war protests which were gaining in momentum at home following the 1968 TET offensive.
Following the loss of over 54,000 American servicemen and servicewomen in our military during the Vietnam engagement, many thousands of wounded soldiers and civilians, and those who remain missing in action today, it was a challenging, divisive and sad chapter of American history. Ultimately, American and Allied forces were withdrawn from South Vietnam, a peace treaty was signed in Paris in 1973, and history illustrates the eventual unification of both North and South Vietnam under the circumstances we all witnessed.
Although I did not serve in the military and was a college student during the war, I became so very aware of the country, its geography and the political and military landscape of Vietnam by watching these daily news presentations, speaking with those who had served overseas and returned home, discussing the issues with the “hawks” and “doves” of the 60’s and 70’s and listening to the protest songs of the Woodstock generation.
It was in 2012 when I had the first opportunity to extend a business trip in Macau and Hong Kong and to travel out and explore more of the region. Vietnam was always mystical to me as I had heard so much about the country and people for so many years and watched so many movies based upon the wartime experience. I felt the need and desire to connect the dots of the past to the reality of today. So, I decided to travel to Hanoi and immerse immediately myself into the former North Vietnam.
I didn’t know what to expect upon arrival. How would the city look? Would there still be remnants of the war? Would there be a heavy military presence? Would the people remain resentful toward Americans and toward me personally? These were some of the first questions that I sought answers for.
This was my first of many visits to Vietnam and my first excursion was limited to three days in Hanoi and Haiphong province. During this first journey, I stayed in 4 star lodging facility located along the West Lake of Hanoi, the general location of where John McCain’s fighter jet was shot down during the war and where he was captured.
When walking the streets of Hanoi, you do not sense or feel the presence of any war time era, nor do you sense any resentment towards yourself as an American. In fact, you are recognized as a Westerner rather than an American. The war ended over forty years ago, and the younger generation is more interested in business and development opportunities for their country than being held back into the history of war era. However, if you seek out remnants of the past, you can find them.
During my first brief visit to Hanoi, I visited the Hanoi Hilton where most of the US POW’s were held after their aircraft were downed over the North. You can see some of the prison that remains standing and also witness John McCain’s flight suit and deployed parachute which is on display there. You will also witness some framed photographs of captured US POW’s in prison with their staged smiles and expressions being very evident.
There are military museums in Hanoi which display captured US planes, tanks, helicopters and other military hardware. There is also a display of US aircraft wreckage which is presented in a court yard setting as a stoic reminder of the war time era in North Vietnam.
In a dense residential neighborhood of Hanoi is a small pond which is referred to as B52 Lake. It sits tightly within a courtyard of residential apartments located down a narrow street. When you arrive at the “lake” you immediately notice something that appears to be wreckage of a large metal object, which has rubber tires protruding from it above the water line. There is a small café nearby which reads “B52 Café.” The lake or pond is referred to as B52 Lake as it holds the wreckage of a B52 bomber which was shot down over Hanoi in or around 1972. There are propaganda posters displayed nearby which portray the military aviation battles of that day and era.
On future trips to Vietnam, I have traveled to the DMZ and to battle sites in and around Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. It was interesting to note that the international airport in Ho Chi Minh City is the former U.S. Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base. You can still see some military protective barriers and aircraft hangers which remain from the war.
At the Da Nang International Airport, works continues besides a tarmac area where work teams continue to decontaminate the soil from the remnants of Agent Orange. Da Nang Air Force Base was a staging area for deployment of Agent Orange which caused so many major medical challenges to both Americans and Vietnamese for current and future generations.
I ventured out to Tay Ninh province located near the Cambodian/Southern Vietnam border to witness the Cu Chi Tunnel system used by the Viet Cong during the wartime era. The shooting of AK-47 rifles by tourists on a nearby shooting range added to the realism of what this site represented. What impacted me most from a history and military reality check standpoint was taking an eight hour journey from Hue into the heart of the former Demilitarized Zone or DMZ.
The DMZ is located on both sides of the 17th Parallel which once separated North and South Vietnam. It was the site of many military battles and engagements, and due to the intense conflicts which occurred there, it is still unsafe to walk off of established roads and foot paths due to unexploded explosives and ordinances which remain today though out this region. On a more recent visit with my daughter, I wanted to share some of the history of our country and what Vietnam represented to her father’s era and childhood. We traveled through the DMZ for many hours until we reached Khe Sanh near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Khe Sanh is the site of one of the major military battles of the war between entrenched US ground forces and North Vietnamese Army Regulars who surrounded and attacked the compound for many weeks, and whose overlooking mountainside positions were targeted by US military aircraft, which combined caused countless casualties to both sides in the conflict.
Today, Khe Sanh is a military memorial battle site located in a quiet valley. You can still observe C130 transports remaining generally where they were left at the end of the battle and war. You can observe a US military helicopter, bunker positions, a museum and even remaining bomb casings which are displayed on the ground. The surrounding mountains are becoming more covered with vegetation following war time defoliants having been sprayed upon its former thick undergrowth. Khe Sanh is a somber place to visit for veterans and civilians alike. When you visit Vietnam today you will witness an emerging nation of new young professionals and business people as you would anywhere else in the developing world economy. The focus in Vietnam today is on tomorrow, maintaining some important ancient traditions, while also quietly recognizing its past. You will not see any military presence and you will engage people to people with many people who want to learn about you and your culture and the history of your own nation.
It is a wonderful country to visit and to explore its culture, its history, its people and its vast and beautiful scenery and surroundings.