I was born the year the war between Vietnam and the U.S.A. ended. Besides being given a general overview in school, I knew very little about the war when I was young. The adults in my life never talked about it in front of me, but I heard enough of their whispers to understand war is horrific.
Vietnam’s history and landscape have piqued my curiosity over recent years and I wanted to experience it up close. I recently had the opportunity to do just that with a visit to Northern Vietnam. The country I encountered was breathtaking and the cities were alive with traffic, food, and tourists. And the culture was much different from what I imagined as a child.
I spent part of my week on a junk boat, a wooden sailing ship, in the majestic Halong Bay—a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I met several new friends along the way including our tour guide, Chi [name has been changed for privacy].
On the three-hour van ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay, Chi told our group about his culture and family. He began by sharing how the American War was a part of his story. His father was recruited to fight and was wounded, captured, and imprisoned. Chi recalled his father telling him about the torture he underwent. His father’s captors kept asking him where he had stayed, but he didn’t know because he was only following others through the chaos. No answers meant more torture. Chi’s father was eventually released and made it back to Northern Vietnam. “He’s one of the lucky ones,” Chi told us, as he recounted the number of deaths and devastation caused by the war on both sides.
Chi went on to tell us about the role communism had in the war and after. His family worked in and operated a rice field the government-owned. Before the country’s borders opened in 1986, the government had all of the produce collected from the fields and brought to the market. Chi and his family couldn’t keep any of the rice they harvested but had to go stand in the queue just like everyone else to get their food for the week. Some weeks they received less than others. Chi recalled a moment, as an adult, when he was surprised to see his mother eating a potato. She had always insisted she didn’t like potatoes, but she was simply making sure Chi and his siblings had enough to eat.
Today, the government still owns the fields but rents them to farmers to have their own businesses. 65% of the Vietnamese people work in agriculture. Chi and his siblings fall into the other 35%. His siblings became teachers, while he began work as a tour guide. Working in the tourism industry, Chi has seen a lot of changes take place in Vietnam as more and more people visit each year. In 2016, over 10 million travelers entered the country—a 26% increase from 2015 (Viet Nam National Administration of Tourism).
“Our generation is very lucky. We have opportunities,” said Chi.
The group listened intently to every word Chi spoke. Then he paused and told us that visitors often ask him what the Vietnamese people think of Americans today.
I suddenly realized I was the only American in the van and sat quietly in the back, waiting for Chi’s answer. I’ve known families in the U.S. who were torn apart because of the impact of the Vietnam War on a soldier. And on that day when I was traveling across the land where that war was fought, I heard the story of a man who was also deeply affected by the American War.
Chi’s response about Vietnam-U.S. relations surprised me. He recalled when President Obama went to Vietnam in 2016. This was the first time a sitting U.S. president was in Vietnam since the war. While there were multiple reasons for the visit, Chi’s opinion was that it showed his generation that the U.S. could be humble. He went on to explain that Obama ate local street food and talked with everyday people. This meant a lot to his generation.
I stared out the window watching the rice fields go by for the last hour of our ride. My eyes swelled up with tears as I thought about the victims of war. I couldn’t help but think of the wars and terror that continue to go on throughout the world today. What would the world be like if we all remembered that while our cultures, religions, and politics may be different…it is still possible to come together? Chi acknowledged it may seem strange that Obama eating food could have the effect it had but the action symbolized more than a political move, it showed that humanity can come together.
I don’t live in a fantasy that world peace can happen by sitting around a campfire singing kum by yah. But I know we can all play our part in our neighborhoods, schools or businesses. It can start with simply having lunch with someone different than you this week, talk to fellow travelers and learn about their childhood, attend a religious event or service that is different from yours, etc.
There is hope, opportunity, and good in the world. Go find it and create it…and don’t settle for less!
by Julie Slagter