Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

The Outstretched Hand of Vietnam

December 30, 2011

Story by Zachary Brown

My first night here a new Vietnamese friend, the same age as me (21), welcomed me into his home without hesitation. I was a virtual stranger, but we shared a connection to the University of Montana and I displayed an interest in his country. That was all it took to be treated like an honored guest — he and his family made me feel like an old and dear friend with hospitality I had never before experienced.

Yet, this is Vietnam! I carried here the baggage of my country, and had somehow not expected this sort of welcome. Just the name of this country still brings up questions and angst in America, as the history of Vietnam-U.S. relations is dominated by a single connotation: the Vietnam-American War. This was arguably the most controversial war in U.S. history, and it still lingers on the mind of many Americans. It represents a bitter loss to some, and a social and political atrocity to others. Either way, it is a wound in America.

But clearly the story is different here in Vietnam. The people here have turned a new page in their history, and they are proud to be unified. They are proud to share their country with me—an American. And more than proud, they are loving and welcoming.

One of our first activities in Ho Chi Minh City (the old “Saigon,” former democratic capital of South Vietnam) was a tour of the “War Remnants Museum.” Right away, a man approached me with an outstretched arm. He was Vietnamese, and he wanted to shake my hand—except that he had no hands. He was a war victim who had lost one eye, and where two hands should have been he had only stunted forearms. I grasped his fleshy limb and said hello.

Suddenly I turned behind me at the sound of a wailing cry and watched an older American woman run out the front doors of the museum and collapse on a bench directly behind me. A friend rubbed her back as she cried into her sunglasses and trembled.

I turned and walked to the exhibits. I read about the South Vietnamese prisons, with detailed descriptions of the torture techniques employed by jailers on their communist prisoners. I then walked through a large room with walls painted orange (appropriately), and looked at gruesome pictures and statistics that detailed the horrible, horrible affects of Agent Orange poisoning.

I trembled myself as I absorbed proof of humanity at its worst.

My father was in the U.S. Navy, and in 1965 he visited Nagasaki, Japan—exactly twenty years after the U.S. destroyed 80,000 civilians with an atomic bomb. He told me that the people treated him like a hero or a celebrity when he walked through the city dressed in his American military uniform. Since then, he has said that the Japanese people don’t blame Americans for the tragedy but instead feel a personal sense of shame and responsibility. He said that burn victims, disfigured by the nuclear fallout in 1945, were ostracized from dominant society because they were marked with “shame.” The Japanese shamed themselves instead of the Americans.

When I walk the streets of Vietnam and interact with its people, I am met with incredible graciousness and warm smiles. Vietnamese people are happy and welcoming to Westerners, and they seem to love and welcome Americans in particular. What a surprise this has been!

Yet there is no social parallel to be made between the Vietnamese and the Japanese in their responses to American aggression. I don’t get the sense that Vietnamese people revere Americans, and they certainly don’t internalize shame about a war they now regret. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The Vietnamese are proud of what they achieved in fighting the “American War.” Forty years ago, they defended their own sovereignty and united themselves as a free and independent state for the first time in generations. Today, the economic future of young people in Vietnam is as bright as ever, with the country growing as quickly as any other in the world.

And America?—We are a partner in free trade, and something to admire in terms of economic and societal achievement. I have not seen even a trace of resentment or animosity here, only a desire the better themselves and share the beauty of their land and people with their honored guests. They have moved beyond war, I think, because peace is in their roots. For over 800 years (from the 1010 declaration of independence from China, to the French occupation in the late nineteenth century), Vietnam was called Annam, which simply means, “peaceful land to the south.”

What a difference. And how wonderful it is to be here, in the unified state of Vietnam. These people are proud of their home country and they value their collective good—spiritually and in tangible economic means as well. In this pride they seem to hold a collective graciousness for outsiders, and a desire to share their home with the traveler. It seems safe to say that we are amidst the dawn of new day in U.S-Vietnam relations: one of unprecedented growth, sincere friendship, and an undaunted sense of what the future might hold.

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