This post is five months late because it took me that long to figure out how to put words to how I felt as an American in Vietnam.
A few days after arriving in Saigon, I toured an American/Vietnamese war museum and seeing the victims of agent orange was a heartbreaking experience. I chose to do it alone and was glad, as I had the time and space to process the photos and read about the war from the Vietnamese perspective.
You guys, it was horrific.
The chemicals we sprayed from planes caused the most extreme deformities you can imagine, and it's still affecting children and civilians even 40 years after the war has ended. Though I felt the anti-American propaganda unnecessary and distracting, the photos and the impact of agent orange is entirely real. I left the museum sick to my stomach, having left after watching a video of an 8-year old boy with feet attached to his hips crawl around his bedroom.
The next day I joined an Australian friend on a tour exploring the Cu Chi tunnels about 45 minutes outside of Saigon. I was one of the only American's on the tour, so I felt incredibly self conscious as I boarded the bus. But our guide was wonderful, walking us through the timeline from the Vietnamese perspective, which was so interesting to me as the Vietnam War is so glossed over our American history books.
What most impressed me most though was the grace he gave while speaking about the United States and the American soldiers. He explained that many U.S. soldiers didn't agree with the war and found themselves in a kill or be killed situation. He even talked about the many American soldiers returning home after such a gutting war to a nation that didn't support them. Telling a story about such a traumatic and political war while still creating empathy for both sides was not an easy feat, but one that I felt so grateful for.
When we arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels, I was beyond amazed at the advanced infrastructure, especially from a nation with so little resources. I could barely fit through most of the openings of the tunnels, which were intentionally sized for petite Vietnamese soldiers. The tunnels were hot (even for Vietnam), tiny, and claustrophobic. I couldn't believe the Viet Cong soldiers lived in them for over 10 years.
Over the next few months I struggled to process what I had seen. The more research and thought I put into it, the more my my anger settled on our government. And not even in a protest the war kind of a way. We're not the first country to do something really shitty like this, but in order to learn from our mistakes we can't bury them. If we know that history repeats itself, why don’t we as a nation own what we did and educate people on the American/Vietnam war?
We need to talk about this, about the weapons we chose to fight with, and the effect they had and are still having.
But while I was processing, I noticed something. The Vietnamese people offered me nothing but lightness and warmth. Wait - they're being so kind. My curiosity led me to some cautious conversations with a few locals about the war, starting with the man pictured playing the guitar.
My uncle was a medic in that cave on this very island.
Really? Wow. I can't imagine trying to treat people out of a cave. So how do you feel about Americans now?
Oh I like Americans.
...oh. Well tell me this; looking back on it, how do you feel about it now, are you angry?
No. Just glad it's over.
Being in a country that we warred for so long could have been an uncomfortable, if not terrible experience. But instead, I benefitted from so many Vietnamese taking the high road, helping to create relationships between a new generation of people. But to be offered this kind of grace was nothing short of inspiring.