When I first set foot in Vietnam, emerging from a small landing craft and surrounded by a greeting party of joyful, friendly children in a small fishing village, it felt as if the power of the soil galvanized me and instantly realigned my inner fibers.
A flood of associations with the word “Vietnam” from my whole life rushed over and overwhelmed me. I found myself breaking into tears. Forty or fifty years ago, the parents and grandparents of these radiantly beautiful children would have been the children living there as the Vietnam War ravaged the country. But today here they were welcoming me with smiles and laughter.
I arrived in Vietnam as a passenger on AmaWaterways’ Mekong river cruise on AmaLotus, and by the time I got to Vietnam I had already experienced Cambodia and had seen the Vietnamese countryside as we sailed down the river. I saw enough to know that the people of the rural region mostly subsisted on agriculture or fishing. The vast majority had nothing whatever to do with the war that tore apart their country.
Indeed, the war itself was the old story of colonialism, as described in this passage from “Gaspar Ruiz” by Joseph Conrad: “That long contest, waged for independence on one side and for dominion on the other, developed in the course of years and the vicissitudes of changing fortune the fierceness and inhumanity of a struggle for life. All feelings of pity and compassion disappeared in the growth of political hatred. And, as is usual in war, the mass of the people, who had the least to gain by the issue, suffered most in their obscure persons and their humble fortunes.”
In my lifetime, the word “Vietnam” resonated through my country as the central wedge that divided Americans into two bitterly opposed camps. No word screamed more loudly across the landscape as the United States erupted in social turmoil in the late 1960s. No one living in America could have been oblivious to it. The word meant many things to many people. In fact, it meant everything but what it actually referred to — the country of Vietnam itself.
Finally on AmaWaterways’ Mekong river cruise I got my chance to see and experience Vietnam directly for the first time. The impact it had on me is beyond description, and very personal because one of my closest friends growing up was killed in Vietnam by American supporting fire. Every American has his or her own personal experience of Vietnam, but no one who lived during that time, whether they know it or not, was untouched by the conflict.
That is why I believe all Americans should go to Vietnam and see it for themselves. The same is true for Cambodia. One of the passengers on my trip had been a soldier in Cambodia during President Nixon’s secret war on the country. He told me that American B-52s dropped more bombs on Phnom Penh on one night than on Japan during all of World War II. I later confirmed the horror story for myself when I discovered American bombing killed nearly 600,000 Cambodians during the war. The broken down society that was left after that destruction was easy prey for the insanity of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which had only been a minority faction before the American war.
As the young Americans who were shipped off to Vietnam War discovered, Indochina is another world, an alternate universe. It has an exotic beauty all its own that goes along with its fierce independence.
The country’s resistance to foreign domination is at the core of its national identity. Vietnamese history is in part a series of struggles against foreign domination. The country fell under Chinese rule in 206 B.C., and struggled against Chinese domination for a millennium before winning independence in 938 A.D. The Vietnamese fought off another Chinese attempt at domination in 1077, resisted a Mongol invasion in 1283 and again in 1287, and then resisted another Chinese occupation from 1407 to 1427.
The French tried to take over in 1858 and by 1883 controlled most of the Indochina peninsula, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. But the country never rested easily under foreign domination. Many uprisings took place under the French colonial regime until the French were finally pushed out in the early 1950s only to be replaced by the Americans.
Today Vietnam represents an alternative culture, one brimming with wonders and revelations for visiting American travelers. If there is a list of required travel destinations for Americans, Vietnam must surely be on it!