When I was a kid in the 1960s, Vietnam loomed large. It was a war that none of the adults around me seemed able to explain.
In those days there were only three television networks and each recorded the grim progress of American involvement in Vietnam with what became a familiar lexicon: the Viet Cong, the DMZ, Da Nang, Saigon, Hanoi, My Lai, ‘Charlie’, the Iron Triangle, Khe Sahn.
In 1975 the North Vietnamese army entered Saigon, marking the war’s end and the reunification of the country. A quarter century later, I visited Vietnam, hoping to gain insight into the war and its aftermath from the Vietnamese perspective.
Traveling ‘slow’ has always been my favorite way to experience a place. In Vietnam, I traveled by bicycle from Hanoi to the ancient city of Hue and then by train to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. Along the way I was struck by the sheer number of massive military cemeteries I passed. Each one seemed to stretch on and on and were sobering reminders of the war’s tragic cost
As I looked out at these cemeteries I couldn’t help but think that most of those headstones resulted from US operations. Estimates of Vietnamese casualties from 1965 to 1975 range from 1.6 million to over 2 million. And yet, the majority of Vietnamese I met seemed to have little memory of the war or animus toward the US.
Much of this might be attributed to the age range of the Vietnamese I met. This is a young country and most of the people I met were in their twenties and thirties—too young to have known the war. In contrast, there was a notable absence of middle-aged men who would have been of fighting age during the war years.