Vietnam after 25 Years

By Fox, Thomas C. | National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

Vietnam after 25 Years


Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter


Vietnam was always complex, always personal. During the war I found it easier to live in Vietnam, close to the victims of our war, than in my homeland, where too often people seemed not to care.

Life and hope, but war scars linger on

Nearly three decades had passed since our last visit to my wife's family in the Mekong Delta when we arrived at Tan Son Nhut airport on a morning flight from Bangkok, Thailand. Rows of old hangers that once protected U.S. planes from 122-mm rockets served as ghostly reminders of another time.

Once the busiest airport in the world, Tan Son Nhut was almost sleepy when we stepped off the plane in January into the heat of the day. Inside the terminal, we were directed to customs officials dressed in those familiar olive uniforms and caps with red stars. These were serious people, scrutinizing papers before stamping visas with red ink. They never looked up and were the only Vietnamese during a two-week stay that were less than warm and friendly.

Twenty-five years after the U.S. defeat on April 30, 1975, when U.S. Marines scooped the last escaping Vietnamese from the roof of the U.S. embassy, Vietnam does not go away. It shaped the lives of my generation and continues to haunt our nation in subtle ways. For some of us it remains an explosive and dangerous force. Memories, sometimes buried deeply, are approached gingerly, with trepidation and respect.

Vietnam was always complex, always personal. During the war I found it easier to live in Vietnam, close to the victims of our war, than in my homeland, where too often people seemed not to care.

Setting out for Vietnam this year, I sensed it could be an explosive experience, but also had the potential to offer healing. I wondered what we would find. So large a story. No event had a greater impact on our nation in the second half of the 20th century. The war seems almost mythical, a 10-year morality play with lasting lessons. At the same time, it is so simple. It is about what happens to the lives of people who have essentially the same fears and dreams as the rest of us. It is a kaleidoscope. Each time you look through it you see something new.

The last time my wife, Hoa (pronounced Wa), and I returned to Vietnam was in 1989 when Hanoi was just beginning to peek out from behind its postwar isolationist shell. Everything seemed uncertain then. People went out of their way to receive us, but there seemed to be a guardedness to each step forward. This time that hesitancy had all but disappeared.

Once outside the terminal, I was relieved to find that taxi drivers no longer grab at arms and hustle luggage as they once did, vying for passengers. The government has imposed new order. The National Tourist Association has taken charge, setting the fare into the city at $10 a person. Rows of clean, white, air-conditioned Japanese autos sit ready to whisk new arrivals to their destinations.

The young man we were directed toward took our luggage, smiled and soon set out on a newly paved, wide showcase road that approaches the airport. He was supposed to direct us to one of the more expensive hotels, but he knew this woman who ran a less expensive hotel, he said, and quarters there would be adequate. He eventually confided that he would take a cut in pay for diverting us.

Welcome to Vietnam's new economics, a mixture of formal government planning and renegade entrepreneurism. The residents of Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, have long held a "do-what-you-need-to" approach to work. Sometimes it drives the communists crazy. Especially in the South, people prize their sense of self-reliance.

Hoa and I were among the 530,000 foreigners, many of them Viet kieu, (returning Vietnamese), to travel to Vietnam during the first three months of the year, a "14 percent" increase over the same period last year, boasted a report in the Vietnam Economic Times, one of many new business journals that push trade and foreign investment.

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