Lessons from Vietnam

Lessons from Vietnam


Find one hundred Americans who can afford to travel internationally for leisure. Ask them where they’d like to go, and you’ll likely hear a lot of Italy, France, Argentina, England, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Few Americans, with the exception of culturally competent, adventurous, or well-traveled people, put Vietnam at the top of their dream destinations list. It’s no surprise, given the tumultuous history of U.S.-Vietnamese relations coupled with Vietnam’s developing infrastructure and lack of overall global power or wealth (though the tourism industry is rapidly growing). Older generations, especially, remember personal remnants of the Vietnam War era, and “war zone” doesn’t sound like it lends itself to leisure and enjoyment.

However, a new era of travelers, of which I am a part, see the potential for discovery, challenge, and—yes—fun in a country that is still healing from destruction caused during the 1960s and 1970s. I traveled to Vietnam with university students and professors to learn about modern Vietnamese culture in its historical context. Unsurprisingly, I knew little to nothing about what makes Vietnam unique and beautiful.

Urban Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, a name which the locals still use and sometimes prefer) has the signs of a Westernizing economy, but it’s still clear this is officially a communist country. Its one-party government, walking between total control and cracking the gates open to capitalism, recognizes tourism as an area with plenty of potential in Vietnam, whose naturally stunning, lush landscapes lend themselves well to postcards. But the tokenistic image of a Vietnamese rice paddy worker adorned with a traditional hat needs to be dismantled as the homogenous vision of this people. It needs to be placed alongside a vast array of other representations of life, because the Western perception of Vietnam is dangerously attached to very, very narrow, secondhand ideas. There’s nothing especially wrong with any one of those ideas or images; it’s homogeneity of representations that leads to consequently ignorant assumptions. Comparing my own preconceived ideas of Vietnamese culture to what I actually saw, heard, and tasted, it was clear that we, as Americans especially, have a distorted view of a people with whom our own nation has been irrevocably entangled.

The most memorable and disturbing takeaway from my Vietnamese travels was something I’ve never heard in my seventeen years of formal education in the United States. Most Vietnamese people consider what we call “the Vietnam War” a genocide. Though many of the educational displays in Vietnam are understandably one-sided, many of the most sickening, shocking documents are from U.S. sources. The brutal consequences of military occupation—for everyone involved—are rarely as effectively conveyed as they are in the physical place where they occurred, and learning about this dark chapter of history on local soil has the power to shake, challenge, and awaken in ways unreachable by books and films.

As I wondered in this post on “Dark Tourism” and ethics in the context of travel, what is our moral responsibility as international travelers? My time in Vietnam made me want to understand my privilege as a middle-class American in a post-war context and to find efforts toward reconciliation in what I do as a tourist, consumer, and professional. Maybe it’s because I’m above average on the self-discipline scale and love learning, but I would almost always choose an illuminating, uncomfortable experience over a drunk week on a beach (yes yes, those have their place some of the time).

My grandfather served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam and, like so many of his fellow veterans, never talked about his experiences. Four years after he died, I stood in the same spaces he did so many years ago and so far from home, and I wish I could ask him. Feeling as awakened to the gruesome reality as one can be in the safety of modern comfort and certainty, I wish I could ask him. Thank him. And tell him I don’t want him to carry the burden of his experiences. We can’t learn from each other in silence.