Seeing Past the War in Vietnam
By Skyler Inman
We arrived in Hanoi the day after a national celebration.
May 7th, 2014: the sixtieth anniversary of the Viet Minh victory over the French at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ. Military men marched, minority women paraded in their traditional clothing, semiautomatic rifles in hand. Floats, bedecked in multicolored balloons and celebratory banners, advanced slowly behind the aged veterans of the siege. On the seventh, the country celebrated.
Now immortalized in the collective memory of Vietnam, the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ put an end to French involvement in Indochina, but left Vietnam divided into North and South. More importantly, though, it marked a pivotal moment in Vietnamese history: though the bloody 56-day siege was over, the 18-year Vietnam War stood on the not-too-distant horizon. After the defeat of the French, Northern Vietnam would take on American forces in what would become one of the most controversial, drawn-out wars in modern history.
On the seventh, the country celebrated, and on the eighth, we arrived.
Straggling, tired, and foreign, we found the streets of Hanoi teeming with motorcyclists and taxis, the sidewalks spilling over with dinnertime customers of the city’s ubiquitous street side restaurants. Hanoi was back to its usual, hectic business, and the occasional banner was the only evidence of the previous day’s festivities.
Like many Americans, I used to think of Vietnam in the context of my country’s involvement. To me, Vietnam meant the draft; Vietnam meant helicopters and young American veterans; Vietnam meant widespread protests and counterculture opposition; Vietnam meant young men in their twenties who never came home. Vietnam meant controversy and bombings and destruction on all sides. Most of all, Vietnam meant the pantheon of novels and movies that have since tried to explain the war. Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Forrest Gump, Going After Cacciato: these were the ways in which I got to know Vietnam. To me, Vietnam was a war.
But in the streets of Hanoi, just one day after the country celebrated a wartime victory, Vietnam was nothing like a war. Vietnam was darting motorbikes and haggling street vendors, Vietnam was cold beer or sweet iced coffee served in open-air cafés. Vietnam was alive, thriving, and overwhelmingly young: teens and young adults populated Hanoi’s waterfront walkways and fashionable hangouts.
I have a mantra, now, passed on to me from a wise expat in Hanoi: Vietnam is not a war—Vietnam is a country. And while it’s a mantra worth internalizing, it’s hard to deny the fact that Vietnam, though not defined solely by the turbulence of the 20th century, was certainly changed by it.
In the streets, vendors hawk army green helmets and shirts with the American wartime radio slogan, “Good Morning, Vietnam!” printed across the chest; in stores, shopkeepers offer vintage propaganda posters as souvenirs. Some praise the destruction of the American B52 bombers; others offer a more peaceful message. Off of the streets, the war is immortalized in museums. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum celebrates young women involved in the war effort, enumerating the number of enemy combatants they killed. In the south, not far from our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, the War Remnants Museum displays the atrocities of war: Agent Orange, phosphorus bombs, Napalm. Walls of photographs by wartime journalists show the human and environmental collateral of Vietnam’s wars with both America and France.
Even after getting to know Vietnam as it now exists, it can be difficult not to see the country for its wars. But while some wounds of the 20th century are fresher than others, it’s remembrance that matters most in Vietnam, and by way of remembrance, healing.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City one week and a day after a national celebration. By then, most signs of the Điện Biên Phủ anniversary had been cleared away, and even more so than in the north, the southern city had moved on to other things.
In Vietnam, colonialism, war, and politics are a backdrop; a useful historical context. But to see the country as nothing more than its recent history—that is, to see Vietnam as a war—is to overlook the vibrant foreground of modern Vietnam.
The truth here lies in the mantra: Vietnam is not a war–Vietnam is a country.
On the seventh of May, Vietnam took a day to remember one of the most pivotal moments in its history. On the eighth, business in Vietnam returned to its usual pace. Life continued, affected, but not wholly defined, by the events of the past century.