Returning to Vietnam after 51 years

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Dottie and I have landed safely at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, after a two-stage, 20-hour flight from San Francisco on a Cathay Pacific jetliner.

To be honest, I’m not sure I want to be here at all.

It had been 51 years between visits. The memories are mostly sad, hence my reluctance to return.

Nevertheless, here we are.

The good thing is that thousands of tourists from all over the world fly in here every week. And I have been told that our Vietnamese hosts are happy to have us here … this time.

Preparing for the visit, I re-read all of the letters I’d written from Vietnam in 1967 and ’68, which my parents saved for me. I also kept a journal during those times and re-read it. By choice and natural passage of time, what I’d experienced more than a half century ago was tucked far back in the recesses of my brain.

Reading the letters and journal brought them back to the front and reminded me of how naive I was then.

I went there as a young Naval officer believing the hype that we were saving the South Vietnamese people from the cruel tyranny of communism, and that they (the people) actually wanted us there.

Once in country, I saw that we were party to destroying it in order to save it.

I wrote my first impressions in a letter I sent home on Jan. 15, 1968. It included this observation:

“I am glad I wasn’t born Vietnamese. These beautiful people are forced to struggle in poverty, disease … in a country wasted by war. They are caught in the middle of a political struggle they know little about and could care less for …And we’re not helping … We’re making it worse.”

Those were the first impressions of a 25-year-old with virtually no experience in the world outside his very comfortable California wine-country bubble, a bubble I happily returned to once my military obligation was done.

Fresh off the plane yesterday, I was curious to know how those beautiful, struggling Vietnamese people are doing, and wondering how they feel about what we did to them and their country back then.

My first impression after a half century absence is that they are doing well.

The sweet, congenial nature of the people here that I found so appealing a half century ago has endured through their recovery from a devastating war.

Our guide, Huynh Ngoc Chau, is an articulate, personable young man whose parents survived the war. He is proud of his country and is well-versed in its history, but displays no apparent bitterness regarding America’s role in its recent past. Like virtually all of the Vietnamese we’ve met so far, he has made us feel like welcome guests.

More than that, I have an overall sense that there’s a re-connection that has taken place here, like that between old friends lost for a time, then found and joyfully celebrated.

Here in Vietnam’s largest city of 13 million, western culture, fashion and tech plus millions of motor scooters are dominant. Politics is not a safe topic, but it appears that capitalism co-exists with communism, as long as people don’t speak out against the government. Democracy as we define it is probably a generation or more in the future.

Tomorrow, we are visiting Reunification Hall, the former seat of the South Vietnamese government and nerve center of the war. We will also drive by the U.S. consulate, and possibly the War Remnants Museum. All three are linked to my time here long ago.

I’m not sure how that’s going to feel.

Thinking optimistically, Ho Chi Minh City sits right on the banks of the Saigon River, and I have done some research about fishing in the area, specifically fly-fishing. Apparently there’s not much of that around here, but I was referred to a guy who specializes in a rather extreme version of it. Where as we stateside fly-fishers use the feathers of ducks and other fowls in our lures, he uses an entire live baby bird. I didn’t fish with him, but watched a video. He caught fish and the bird survived.

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