On Being an American Tourist in Vietnam

During my travels, I have been in a number of places where great tragedies are still very much in the minds of the people. In Cambodia, where nearly a quarter of the population lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge; in China and the Great Chinese Famine when an estimated 20 to 43 million people starved to death; in South Africa, where untold numbers of people suffered during Apartheid; and even in Italy, where the wounds from World War II still seem fresh. However, in none of these situations was any blame placed on the American people. In most cases, we weren’t mentioned at all, or if we were if was positive. I knew traveling in Vietnam as an American would be tough, and I was right. Nearly every day we were presented with a reminder of the Vietnam War (or as it is called in Vietnam, the American War).

Truong Tien bridge, a key strategic point in the Battle of Hue (1968). This battle was the the longest, bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive.
Truong Tien bridge, a key strategic point in the Battle of Hue (1968). This battle was the longest, bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive.

Some people greeted my plans to go to Vietnam with skepticism. Many people just asked why I would want to go there. Vietnam still has a negative connotation for lots of people, especially Americans. While it often seems like it was a long time ago (especially to people my age and younger), it really wasn’t. Hundreds of thousands of veterans who served in Vietnam are still alive, many still suffering the effects of their service, both mental and physical. There are still not a lot of American tourists visiting Vietnam, but the numbers are rising as people find out how beautiful, interesting, and affordable travel here can be.

Bomb craters scar the earth at My Son Sanctuary
Bomb craters scar the earth at My Son Sanctuary

On this trip, we toured the length of Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south to Hanoi in the north. We stayed in Hue for one night, near the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone. Several places we visited were sites of major warfare, with the bomb craters still scarring the earth. One of the places this damage was most evident and most depressing was at Mỹ Sơn. Mỹ Sơn was once home to approximately 70 carved towers and temples from the 4th through the 15th centuries. However, the Viet Cong used this area as a major base during the war, and in return the United States bombed it heavily. Now, only 20 towers and temples remain, some heavily damaged.

U.S. Army helicopter at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
U.S. Army helicopter at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

There were several places where it was tough to be an American, even an American born ten years after the war ended. The War Remnants Museum was by far the worst. This museum when it first opened in 1975 was called the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes” before being renamed “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” and finally settling on War Remnants Museum after diplomatic relations with the U.S. were normalized in the mid-nineties. This museum showcases all the terrible things American troops and the American military did in Vietnam, often accompanied by gruesome photos. It leaves out almost any mention of war crimes or other acts of aggression committed by the Viet Cong. This combination is both depressing and frustrating. While I think it is important to educate people about what happened, but I think it is equally important that both sides are acknowledged. However, I don’t see this happening in Vietnam anytime soon.

The Vietnamese people themselves were never outwardly unfriendly or critical of us personally. In fact, they were very welcoming and happy to speak English. In many cases, they seemed very happy to see us and greeted us warmly when they found out we were American. I never felt in danger or had anyone be hostile to me because of my nationality. As one of our tour guides said, the Vietnamese people lived with war for so long, now they just want peace. They want to be farmers and be free to live their lives. And this is what I saw during my time there.

This is one of the reasons that travel is so important. By seeing these places and people for ourselves, we can form an opinion independent of the mass media, independent of rumors, stereotypes, and propaganda. I think the world would be a better place if we traveled more and saw things for ourselves. I now have a better understand of not only the Vietnam War but the Vietnamese people and their culture.

Other American travelers to Vietnam, what are your thoughts?