By Todd DePastino
Marine veteran Andy Nigut and former NVA soldier embrace at the DMZ
Nothing prepared me for the emotional impact of our first VBC trip to Vietnam.
In 2018, the VBC decided to offer a guided tour of the country, from Hanoi to the Mekong Delta. Seventeen of us, almost half Vietnam veterans, took the trip.
My job was to serve as tour guide, and I felt well-prepared. I’d taught a course at Penn State for many years titled, “Vietnam in War and Peace.” I’d interviewed dozens of Vietnam veterans and read a library of books on the country and its history.
But encountering Vietnam—its natural beauty, ancient culture, vibrant economic life—is an overwhelming experience. I made the mistake, when I returned home, of walking in the door and announcing to my wife, “Our trip was the highlight of my life.”
I spent the next several days explaining how my marriage and the birth of our children, of course, outranks everything.
One of the first things you feel when you arrive in Vietnam is the antiquity of the culture. There, time is measured in millennia, not centuries. The people who would become known as the Viet first emerged in the Red River Valley near Hanoi 5,000 years ago and built a distinct civilization over a couple thousand years. Then, in 111 BCE, the Han Dynasty moved in from China and took over. The Chinese stayed for 1,000 years, enriching and reshaping what they called Viet Nam, literally meaning “the Land Beyond the South.”
Under Chinese rule, the Vietnamese adopted irrigated rice farming, the Mandarin system of government administration, and Chinese social customs. They also learned the art of war, as taught by Sun Tzu. This last skill, the Vietnamese would turn against their occupiers.
Vietnam Army soldiers, then (above) and now (below) (Claudia Krich)
The anti-Chinese insurgency lasted for almost a millennium until the climactic Battle of the Bach Dang River in the year 938 AD. Vietnamese guerillas used trickery, booby traps, and ambush tactics to defeat a much larger Imperial force, driving the Chinese out of the Hanoi-Haiphong river basin. Vietnam was now free and independent. But the Dai Viet (Great Viet), as the new state was called, was confined well north of the future DMZ.
Everything south of the Dai Viet belonged to other peoples and civilizations. The Champa, the Khmer, and the other ethnic groups Americans would later lump together as “Montagnards” would become targets of the Dai Viet’s own imperial expansion.
By 1789, the first year of the George Washington administration, the southward march of the Dai Viet was complete, and Vietnam’s modern boundaries were set.
This long campaign of conquest left a deep cleavage between North and South, which remains to this day.
Those in the North still think of themselves as the real Vietnamese, more authentic and true to the heritage of the Dai Viet than the polyglot, cosmopolitan, and multiethnic South. The people up North are profoundly patriotic and patriarchal, conservative, and traditional. They support the government and believe it represents them. Unlike in the South, where the one party Communist state can often feel like an occupying force, in the North people feel freer to voice displeasure with the government. In Ho Chi Minh City, which locals still refer to as Saigon, citizens wouldn’t dare argue with a police officer over a traffic ticket.
We began our trip in Hanoi, the ancient cradle of Vietnamese civilization. It’s jarring, after a trans-Pacific flight, to arrive at Noi Bai Airport, to a country that, at first glance, seems little changed since the American War (as the Vietnam War is called there).
Our Vietnamese tour guide, Kan, is scheduled to be our guide again in 2023.
I’ll never forget lining up for customs upon arrival, standing next to Andy Nigut, a Marine who’d been grievously wounded and disfigured by a NVA rocket in 1968. Our eyes grew wide as we approached the glass-shielded desk where a uniformed official was reviewing passports. The customs officer was decked out in the same forest-green uniform that the NVA wore back in 1968, including the pith helmet with red and yellow star insignia.
“I don’t like the look of that guy,” Andy whispered, probably wondering why he ever came on the trip.
After making it through customs and retrieving our luggage, we met our Vietnamese guide named Kan.
Kan was also our guide also in 2020 and will be in 2023. I think anyone who has traveled with Kan wouldn’t hesitate to name him World’s Greatest Tour Guide. Fascinated with history, curious about the American point of view, eloquent in interpreting his country us, Kan sought to learn as much from us and we did from him.
Kan grew up near Hanoi, younger son of a peasant rice farmer who served in the NVA toting weapons and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. As a Northerner—one of the real Vietnamese—Kan confessed a hidden kinship with his more cosmopolitan Southern compatriots. And, while we were getting to know Hanoi, he told us to keep our eyes peeled for the essence of traditional Vietnamese culture: Confucianism.
This map shows the territorial expansion of Vietnam southward over centuries, from the Hanoi region in the North to the Mekong Delta in the South (Night Lantern, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
Confucius was an ancient Chinese philosopher and Imperial advisor whose teachings became the basis of East Asian civilization. In the centuries before China’s conquest of Vietnam, Confucius’s philosophy of ethics and code of behavior addressed the central question that all great civilizations face: Once you build a powerful state and social order, how do you keep it? How do you make sure that what you’ve created will endure for millennia?
The answer is a social system that promotes Unity, Stability, Harmony, and Order. And these are the ideals that lie at the heart of traditional Vietnam.
It would be hard to imagine a more un-American set of values. We Americans, historically, have privileged Individualism over Unity, Progress over Stability, and Liberty over Order. We like to keep moving and changing, shaking up old patterns and creating new ones. We relentlessly chase our dreams and pursue our passions, complain about the government and electorally overthrow our leaders every four years on average. As the great observer of the American character Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s, “An American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on . . . he will take up a profession and leave it, settle in one place and soon go off elsewhere with his changing desires.”
Not so in old Vietnam. Confucianism restrains and restricts. It guides the traditional Vietnamese in all things, including the relations between young and old, men and women, and citizens and their government.
You see it on the roads in the traffic. The traffic in Vietnam in mindboggling, and is comprised mostly of motorbikes. In a fast-growing economy, people routinely use motorbikes to carry what should normally go in box trucks: produce, livestock, kitchen appliances, even furniture. Whole families ride together on one bike, all helmeted, for that is the law.
As the economy has doubled in size every eight years since the 1990s, traffic has grown apace. Streets are clogged around the clock. And yet, with so many people competing for the same lane, the same slice of asphalt at all hours, North Vietnam manages it all without traffic lights, stop signs, speed limits, or visible traffic laws of any kind. The Vietnamese don’t need them. Rather, because of Confucianism, they’ve internalized the laws of traffic to operate in harmony with its flow.
Indeed, the traffic in Hanoi resembles a school of fish or murmuration of starlings. The individual motorbikes seem to move in some unspoken coordination, turning, separating, and reuniting in improvised motions.
(Boris Laporte, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
There are crosswalks, but no one stops for you when you use them. Instead, the traffic flows around you like a school of sardines, brushing in front and in back as you pace your steps to the opposite curb. It’s terrifying at first, but you get used to it, and no gets hit or gets hurt.
In Hanoi, there’s no road rage. People beep their horns simply to communicate, never to express anger or outrage. No one swears or shakes their fists. No one yells or makes obscene gestures. Confucianism has powerful prohibitions against such behavior, emphasizing courtesy at almost all costs.
In Saigon, where Confucianism isn’t nearly as strong and the people are more individualistic, traffic lights and stop signs are essential to the preservation of life. In the South, people need to be policed because they don’t police themselves.
In Hanoi, people dress modestly. Women don’t wear tank tops or show their arms. Men don’t wear shorts. You don’t see tattoos, dyed hair, or much jewelry. Instead, you see conical hats for women and NVA-style pith helmets for men.
Perhaps the most striking and deep-rooted aspect of Vietnamese culture is the strict respect for elders. Your age determines how you’re addressed, so Vietnamese people are instantly curious to know how old you are. It can be awkward, because in United States, it’s not always considered polite to ask someone’s age, especially when you first meet. Vietnamese people know that about Americans, but they’re virtually paralyzed in their social interaction until they know what to call you and how to treat you.
Simply put, in Vietnam, the older you are, the more respect and consideration you’re due.
Complicating matters is the Vietnamese language, which doesn’t have pronouns. There are no words for “he,” “she,” or “they.” Instead, the Vietnamese refer to others by family nouns—“cousin,” “uncle,” “brother,” “sister,” “grandfather.” Because of the need for such nouns, the Vietnamese language has the world’s largest selection of them. There’s even a special word for your father’s unmarried younger sister. That’s what kids often use for their teachers.
On Day Three of our first trip to Vietnam, Kan approached me sheepishly.
“Mr. Todd [pronounced toad],” he asked. “How old are you?”
“I know why you’re asking me, Kan,” I responded. “You need to know my age because you need to know what to call me.”
“Yes,” said Kan.
“Well, Kan,” I said, “people say I look young for my age. I am 52 years old.”
Kan immediately slapped his hand over his face in embarrassment and turned away, shaking his head.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” he said repeatedly, unable to face me.
“Kan, you thought I was younger, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” answered Kan.
“What had you been calling me?”
“I’d been referring to you as ‘older brother,’” he said.
“What will you call me now?”
“I will call you ‘young uncle’ from now on,” he stated.
* * * * *
The Vietnamese language is a marvel and a mystery. Every word is one syllable only, and there are only twelve vowels used to make those syllables. Arithmetic tells you that the Vietnamese should run out of possible words after a few hundred.
This six tones used in Vietnamese (Herr Klugbeisser, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons)
And that’s where the tones come in. Because every word can only have one vowel sound, the Vietnamese language uses six different tones to distinguish vowel sounds and, therefore, word meanings. Depending on the tone you use, the Vietnamese word ma could mean “ghost,” “but,” “cheek,” “tomb,” “horse,” or “rice seedling.” If you throw in the many dipthongs and tripthongs, the language has hundreds of tonal sounds, many of which Americans have never made in speech or song.
In 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara spoke before a Vietnamese audience in Saigon and, echoing John F. Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner speech the year before, decided to close his talk with a flourish in Vietnamese. He got the words right, but flubbed the tones. Instead of saying, “Long Live South Vietnam,” the audience heard, “The southern duck wants to lie down.”
Foreign visitors speaking Vietnamese do so at their peril.
* * * * *
As we moved South, below the former DMZ, we began to encounter the actual places where our traveling veterans served. We didn’t see them all. The Central Highlands are hard to reach. But we visited many, from Dong Ha to My Tho. Red Beach and China Beach at Danang were luxuriously pristine. The Cu Chi Tunnels stunned us, as did its proud display of punji sticks and other bamboo booby traps used to harm and kill US servicemembers a half-century ago. The Mekong Delta seemed a world apart, laced with a bewildering network of canals and tributaries.
But perhaps the most astonishing site was Khe Sanh, the grassy plateau fourteen miles south of the DMZ that saw a 77-day siege of 6,000 Marines in early 1968. Surrounded by 20,000 North Vietnamese Army regulars, pounded relentlessly by artillery, and cut off from resupply, the Marines at Khe Sanh fought a desperate battle of survival. Food and water grew short. Some wounded couldn’t be evacuated and bled to death. As the enemy probed the perimeter, Marines sent small teams into the surrounding hills, thick with vegetation, to stop the infiltration. Meanwhile, US bombers blanketed the terrain with so much ordnance, it almost equaled the tonnage dropped on Japan during all of World War II, including the two atom bombs. Few battlescapes in history have witnessed more devastation than Khe Sanh.
One of our travelers, Ray “Doc” Amelio, standing at his Khe Sanh hooch site, 1968 and 2018.
That’s why we were shocked to see as it is today: a serene oasis of grass atop a subtropical mountain rain forest. A soothing breeze accompanied our stroll among the remnants of war, as a young couple had their wedding photos taken. A small museum has large aerial photographs which our Marines who were there in 1968 used to pinpoint their old hooches.
Since the normalization of relations with the United States in 1995, Vietnam has stripped blatant propaganda from most of its old war museums and historic sites. But somehow Khe Sanh missed the makeover. It’s one thing to claim to have killed twice as many Marines who were there and overestimate the number of enemy airplanes shot down by a factor of 197. It’s quite another to trumpet the sinking of 80 enemy ships where there aren’t any navigable waterways.
Another such antiquated museum, quaintly called “The 17th parallel and the Aspiration for Reunification Exhibition House” on the DMZ, was the site of one of the most moving interactions I’ve ever witnessed.
Andy Nigut, the wounded Marine whose jaw had been shattered in 1968, was attracting the stares of an older Vietnamese visitor to the museum. The man finally approached Andy and gestured to his face.
“War?” asked the man in English, rubbing his hand on his chin.
Marine veteran Andy Nigut and former NVA soldier embrace at the DMZ.
Andy, realizing what he was being asked, affirmed by nodding his head and saying, “yes.”
The Vietnamese man nodded back as if to say, “me too,” and lifted up a pant leg to reveal his own grievous scars of war. Then, he pointed to himself and said, “NVA.”
Andy’s eyes widened. The last time he’d seen an NVA soldier was the day he almost bled-out on a battlefield down the road. The two old warriors—separated by culture, language, allegiance—looked at each other in silence, as if discovering some lost kinship. Then, the Vietnamese man broke down in tears.
Without hesitation, Andy reached out and embraced him. Fifty years earlier, they were trying to kill each other in a merciless war along the DMZ. Today, at the same spot, they were brothers.
* * * * *
The most surprising thing we heard from English-speaking Vietnamese who approached us on the trip was, “thank you.” Young people especially wanted to thank our veterans.
“Thank you for fighting for us,” said one young woman at the DMZ bridge. “Thank you for building our country and showing us how to live freely. Because of you, we’ll be a democracy in ten years.”
If you walk around Danang and adjust your eyesight to soft focus, it’s easy to imagine you’re in Myrtle Beach or Las Vegas or some other resort city in the US. Saigon, likewise, bristles with proud towers of wealth and commerce. A city devoted to global trade, Saigon, like Vietnam as a whole, has transformed as much as any place on earth over the past two decades. In the 1990s, when Kan was growing up, Vietnam was the poorest country in the Eastern Hemisphere. Today, it’s home to the world’s fastest-growing economy. If it continues apace, Vietnam’s GDP will crack the global top ten by 2050. And, as Vietnam’s youth knows well, much of this leap in the quality of their lives is due to their friendship with the United States.
Vietnam, now, can be disorienting for American veterans who left the war-wracked nation a half-century ago, witnessed the Fall of Saigon on television in 1975, and watched the country’s dismal descent into Communist re-education and collectivization. Seeing the country today, meeting its people, re-visiting its past, and imagining its future caused us to re-assess what we thought we knew about Vietnam and the American War.
Lou Nudi, who served as an Army captain in the Delta, recalled lying in his cot in 1968 wondering what he and his fellow Americans were fighting and dying for in what seemed to be a lost cause. As we gathered on the motorcoach preparing to depart for home at the end of our trip, Lou turned to us said, “Maybe, after fifty years, we’ve won the Vietnam War.”
At the very least, our trip confirmed for me that it’s still too early to tell.