We are sitting on the Giantibis bus (no idea why it’s called that) travelling out of Vietnam into Cambodia and there is one final story still to tell…. that of the Vietnam war, also known as the American war by the Vietnamese people. During our time in Vietnam we have visited many places which still bear the scars, listened to the people’s different stories and perspectives and tried to understand more about what happened and the implications of the war for the country and its people today.
Before visiting Vietnam, I knew a little about the war from 1964 to 75 between North Vietnam and South Vietnam who were backed by the USA. Conflict leading up to this period however simmered in the country for decades before. The USA first became involved in the late 40’s when they came to the aid of the French, who had colonised Vietnam since 1887. Following the invasion and subsequent withdrawal of Japan after world war II and the declaration of independence of North Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh, the French struggled to regain power in the country. By the early 1950’s both China and Soviet Union supported North Vietnam and the French troops were defeated and finally withdrew from the country in 1954. US concerns about the ‘domino affect’ of communism dominated politics at that time and led to their backing of the catholic nationalist leader of South Vietnam. We learn in the Ho Chi Minh war museum that 58, 000 American and 1.3 million Vietnamese soldiers (on both sides) were killed in the 9 years of the war and a staggering 2 million civilians died as a result of the conflict. In addition to dropping Napalm and cluster bombs, the USA sprayed Agent Orange, an herbicide, thick with the harmful contaminant dioxin, over 3 million hectares of jungle and farmland. The main aim was to defoliate vegetation which had provided cover for the illusive Viet Cong soldiers. Up to 4 million people (including USA army personnel) were exposed. Unfortunately, not just those exposed at the time were affected and we now know that the chemical is capable of damaging genes, resulting in deformities in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations of the exposed victim’s family. Still-births and deformities such as cleft palate, limb loss, mental retardation and neural tube defects, serious skin diseases and several cancers have all been linked to Agent Orange. In 2004 the USA government was prosecuted to gain compensation for the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, however the case was dismissed due to ‘lack of evidence’, despite USA government having already provided compensation to US veterans and their families. The legal battle for justice continues to this day.
In Ho Chi Minh war museum, where graphic photographs detail the horrific events of the war, the victims of agent orange and their continued struggles. On our second day in the city we visit the Cu Chi tunnels and marvel at how the Viet Cong army lived, fought and finally won the war. Soldiers used these underground routes which went on for miles to house troops, transport communications and supplies, lay booby traps and mount surprise attacks, after which they could disappear underground to safety. With an underground city to penetrate I now understand how USA troops were never going to defeat the Viet Cong.
On our journey back from Hanoi, we visit a centre supporting all generations affected by Agent Orange by training the people in local handicrafts, offering valued employment, regular income and hope for the future. It is a hive of activity and dozens of young disabled people are working on the most amazing embroidery paintings and jewellery products. We buy a painting designed and stitched by a young girl called Chau, and when we are back from our travels it will hang on the wall, holding poignant memories of this beautiful country, its past struggles and hopes for the future.
There are always many perspectives and the American war is no different. For the USA it was a fight against communism. For the Vietnamese people, who had been occupied for more than a thousand years first by the Chinese, French and Japanese, the American war was a fight for independence and a chance to govern their own country. The American people were outraged at the devastation and violence of the war and because of its lack of clear objectives. For Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnamese Communist party, his story too is thought-provoking. Our guide tells us that he first approached the French and USA to support his fight for independence, however they refused, and he turned to communist China and USSR who were happy to help. One wonders if the USA had supported Ho Chi Minh, whether the war would have happened at all. And finally, there is the plight of the 2 million South Vietnamese who fled their country for fear of persecution after the war ended in 1975 when the North and South were reunified. Some opponents of the new regime were also sent to re-education camps and international outcry ensued.
In Hue we visit a local couple in their home and share a delicious home cooked meal. The husband, a former North Vietnamese army officer still bears the shrapnel scars of the war and his wife, who was a nurse during the war years, tells of tending to the injured soldiers. For their service to the country, the government has gifted them this home in Hue. We speak to them about the war, and they say that many people suffered on both sides, that the past is the past and that we must all live for the present and have hope for the future.
On our final day in Vietnam, we head out of manic Hoi Chi Minh city, formally known as Saigon, past the 8 million motorcyclists and the street vendors with their lucky cats and brightly coloured piggy banks stacked up for the upcoming Lunar New year celebrations, I reflect on our stay here. I truly believe that despite some of its current difficulties Vietnam wants to forget its past, has hope for the future and that there is now a determination to move forward in the 21st century in peace….and I wish them all the luck in the world.