What struck me first about Vietnam were cars and street lights. There weren't any to speak of. We arrived at Tan San Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at night and boarded our tour bus (with a nice hand-lettered sign in the window: "Welcome Ball State Group"). As we drove toward the city and our hotel, it seemed ours was the only four-wheeled vehicle. But on that road with few lights, there were thousands of people, some walking, more riding bicycles and mopeds, flitting in and out, almost daring our driver to hit them, like moths on a sticky summer night. Finally, I was in Vietnam.
A country I had spent most of the 1960s NOT going to. I don't think I consiciously "dodged" the draft in order to avoid participating in the American War there. I simply wanted to be a teacher, and from 1960-1970 (when I was in my twenties), I was either in school or in teaching positions, activities for which there were draft deferments. By the time I was technically draftable, the military hardly wanted a 30-year-old married man with two children.
Why go now - - May 1994 - - almost 20 years after the war ended? The reasons are complex. Partly, I went because I teach a course on the history of the war. A tour of the country would give me new insights that would surely help me teach the course more effectively. (I also have more than 300 slides which will add immensely to the visual component of the course).
But there were personal reasons as well. I have been absolutely fascinated by the war ever since the mid-1960s. I am convinced that it has been the most defining experience in American history since World War II. And, for a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I actively participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement at Ball State. Since much of my life in the decade of the 1960s was tied to Vietnam, I felt a powerful personal need to go there at last.
What did I bring back from the 12-day experience? Aside from terminal jet lag and something called "viral vertigo," I returned with positive impressions. First, there was a powerful sense of the physical appearance of Vietnam. To be sure, there are immense problems, especially with the infrastructure (pot-hole-filled roads and power outages, for example). But there is a remarkable construction boom - - from new hotels in the city to new concrete houses in rural areas. Moreover, the sheer physical beauty of the country almost overwhelmed me. I've never seen so many shades of green. And mountains rose from green fields with spectacular views of the South China Sea - - all from the same spot.
There was also little evidence of the war except some areas like the tunnels at Cu Chi and the War Crimes Museum in Saigon, specifically designed as reminders of the conflict. But for the most part, rice paddies flourished where earlier defoliation had scourged the landscape. And bomb craters became ponds for fish and ducks.
I have wonderful memories of the people of Vietnam as well. I sensed little or no hostility. Rather, most Vietnamese I talked to combined curiosity and friendliness. Above all, they seemed fascinated by me as an American. (Children rubbed my beard and stroked my pot belly with a passion. Our guide said my stomach reminded them of Buddha's!) I felt almost like some kind of returning hero. Obviously, Vietnamese want Americans to spend money. But I sensed a friendliness toward us that went beyond mere self-interest. In this vein, my symbolic high point came in Da Lat, a beautiful mountain resort city. Our hotel desk clerk there proudly showed me her tattered copy of John F. Kennedy's A NATION OF IMMIGRANTS, her physical contact with America. She asked ME to autograph it!
For all of their poverty and deprivation, the Vietnamese are extraordinarily enterprising and energetic people. They want their country to experience what they see as American material success. Perhaps they needed to try communism, to see its limitations. For the Vietnamese, the "American War" is long over and reconstruction long overdue.
Finally, it was a joy for me to see the Ball State students experience a culture so new and different. They kept journals as part of the course assignment, and I suspect one student's conclusion represents the sentiments of them all: "This was the most interesting thing I have ever done in my life."
For me, perhaps for all of us, it was a mountaintop experience.