The Vietnamese are gearing up to celebrate Tet, the lunar new year, with happy new year signs wherever one looks. It is also the 50-year celebration of the Tet Offensive, which is often cited as the turning point in the Vietnam War. When I returned from my tour of duty in August of 1969, I thought we were on our way to winning the war. It did not turn out that way and that still causes me great pain. However, I think Vietnam is moving on a positive track and has a bright future.
I lived among and worked with South Vietnamese soldiers during most of my tour of duty and got to know many civilians. They were wonderful people and I have fond memories of them. During two weeks in Vietnam these decades later, I have encountered many people just like them from Hanoi to Saigon and points in between. They have been friendly, welcoming and often go out of their way to make a visitor feel at home. When we had to catch an early flight from Dalat to Saigon, the hotel opened breakfast service early to accommodate us.
One of the remarkable things is the courtesy the people show to one another and to foreigners. For instance, the streets of the larger cities are swarming with motor bikes. You would think that a pedestrian would be risking his or her life by trying to cross a crowded street. But, if you can get up the nerve to cross through the traffic, riders will give way so that you feel like Moses must have when the Red Sea parted.
The food is great, the service is friendly and helpful and people are quick to show a genuine smile. My wife are I have enjoyed our interactions with the people of this country. We were in Hanoi when Vietnam beat Iraq in the soccer semi-finals. Young people took to the streets in a lengthy and noisy, flag-waving procession through the city streets to celebrate. When the team won their next game with Qatar during our visit to Hoi An, the same thing happened. They were proud of their country, and we were cheering with them.
We watched the soccer final with Uzbekistan at our hotel in Dalat. There we met a bright young man who attributed his almost perfect English to having spent three high school years in Boston. He will go far. China is making a play for the affections of Vietnam and people like him. Because of a long history of thorny relations between those countries, Vietnam would like to strengthen its relationship with us. I hope America’s recent inward turn does not push them away. We need friends in this region.
The country is not perfect because the people still are unable to exercise some of the freedoms that Americans take for granted. That does not take anything away from the people, who are genuine good folks. We certainly have reason to know that because the Vietnamese who came to the U.S. as refugees after the war have been great additions to the American landscape.
Saigon is a bustling city with lots of development happening. Hoi An is a charming city where my wife, Kelly, and I took Vietnamese cooking classes. Hue is an old imperial city. Hanoi is awakening from a development standpoint and full of friendly people. Our war with the Communists ended badly for us, but I think the outlook for friendship with Vietnam into the future is very positive, if we work to make it happen.