Postcard From Vietnam: The Biggest Little Nation In The World

For those who know and love Reno’s special charms, it’s no exaggeration to say she is indeed “the biggest little city in the world.” For those who already know Vietnam as I have come to know her in the past 12 days, I know you’ll agree that this small but vibrant “Asia Tiger” is a candidate for a similar compliment. For those who haven’t, I hope you can someday visit this meandering, mysterious land in Southeast Asia. For an emerging market country and relatively poor place, Vietnam is rich in many attributes from which Nevadans could gain.

Their most obvious natural resource is something we lack but that Vietnam happens to have far too much of: water. Driving north from the ancient city of Hue to the former American battlefields of Khe Sanh, the rivers were swollen like the veins of strained weightlifters, filling the countryside with the wet abundance of a resource that the Silver State (and the entire western United States) is in dire need of. Vietnamese learn to live with rain much like Las Vegans learn to live with the sun. Unfortunately for both places, water and weather aren’t transferable.

There are, however, less tangible yet equally valuable commodities that Nevadans (and Americans) could readily absorb from the Vietnamese people. One would be what I would call an almost national virtue of practicing patience. It’s a characteristic the Vietnamese have honed through facing many severe hardships over many centuries.

Any nation that can endure long periods of rule by the Chinese dynasties, Japanese imperialists, and French colonialists is in and of itself to be respected and admired. Coupled with the current restraints of an often clumsy and controlling communist system, Vietnam truly is accomplishing minor miracles in education and in their economy. Today’s Vietnamese farmers have even built fish farms in the craters left by B-52 bombing raids.

Ingenuity, energy and determination lie down every metropolitan street from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). Tens of thousands of Vietnamese zoom to work (and play) on a myriad of motorbikes. Indeed, the motorized masses zipping around pedestrians and the occasional automobile make the Labor Day Weekend throng of tourists on Las Vegas Boulevard look sparse in comparison.   It is truly amazing just how many Vietnamese scooters can scoot in different directions all at once with nary a collision. It is truly something to behold.

The riders, whether they are professional women in bright lipstick and high heels or farmers on their way to the market loaded with more vegetables than the laws of physics would seem to deem possible, all manage to flow seamlessly with the tide of continuous commerce. In what appears to the Western eye to be mass confusion, the Vietnamese people manage highway chaos in ways only a professional contortionist could fully appreciate. They glide, pause, and travel onward with no traffic rules, rhyme or reason, and yet they do not become angry with one another and reach their destinations mostly intact. (I accepted a ride from a motorbike operator who attempted to assuage my fears by assuring me he was the “No. 1 motorbike driver” in all of Hanoi. I was still smiling when I later stepped safely onto the street.)

Yes, cordial relations seem to prevail everywhere in Vietnam. Walking around Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake, as thousands of city dwellers do on a Friday night in the Old French Quarter, I experienced scenes right out of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” that great Hollywood portrayal of a simpler time when warm human relationships were most of what mattered.

Strolling lazily in pairs, young lovers and old couples together circle the lake with its ramshackle Thap Rua (Turtle Tower) Pagoda that once was adorned by a Statue of Liberty donated by the French before the communists removed it during the war. Now, symbols of personal freedom – like Venice Beach-style barbells and guitars – occupy a section of sidewalk adorned with muscled Vietnamese men and small groups of teenagers singing impromptu pop song harmonics. Even late at night, folks assemble around the lake exercising in an apparent attempt at combining Tai Chi and networking. Groups of younger Vietnamese stand by, eager to encircle any Westerner willing to engage in an “English” conversation, in the hopes of mastering a language that may one day enhance their futures.

Everywhere was a human connectedness that is hardly observable in most of our urban (or even suburban) settings here in the good old U.S. of A. Everywhere shone the warmth and character of the Vietnamese people themselves. And in spite of – or maybe because of – their suffering, the Vietnamese remain resilient and resourceful. Like their land itself, rich with the elements needed for most anything to grow, our former combatants are now poised for unprecedented economic growth. Some 40 years after the Paris Peace Accord, it’s being done – and with America’s help.

That help is not just in the form of traditional foreign aid. It is coming primarily from direct business investment and tourism. More Americans, millennials especially, are visiting Vietnam in droves. They go because of the prices, the pho (rice noodle dishes as popular as sushi once was), and the natural beauty of such places as UNESCO’s World Heritage Site at Halong Bay. There, hundreds of evergreen limestone karats dot the shallow bay and form a haven for cave explorations, kayak visits, and romantic interludes on affordable overnight luxury “junks.” Visitors go on treks to Sapa National Park in the far north, where multicolored rice fields layer the foothills beneath the grandeur of mountains on the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. And with more than 2,000 miles of coastline, Vietnam has enough secluded white sand coves fit for snorkeling to make most bike-riding eco-tourists giddy with all the “roads less traveled.”

But in and amongst all this beauty, and in the majesty of our own fair land, lies a more difficult journey than that of the enthusiastic tourist. It is the path war veterans on both sides of the former conflict must travel if they wish to reconcile their past. American veterans have unerasable memories and more than their fair share of demons to deal with. As I have traveled and written this past two weeks, I’ve heard from some of them. Many are proud. Others are conflicted about the stand they made in the red dirt at places like Khe Sanh’s Combat Base – a place I visited on a day of torrential rains of the kind our soldiers and Marines endured for months and months on end.

Standing there, and often during my visit to a land I was “invited” to go to in the early 1970’s, I thought often of how the Vietnam War divided America even as it killed our beloved brothers. It left many in my generation with nightmares, and in many cases left scars that have yet to fully heal from wounds both physical and psychological.

The Vietnamese driver on my tour along legendary Route 9, the site of so many pitched battles between American troops and the Viet Cong, confided to me at the end of our day together that his father had been killed along the very highway on which he now transports tourists. I was struck into silence at the knowledge. Here was a man traveling daily on a road that had taken his father and changed his life forever. Here was a man who had somehow made peace with it.

Many of the Vietnam vets with whom I’ve spoken have told me they returned to confront or confirm their memories. In some cases, a healthy perspective has been possible. In some cases, there has even been reconciliation with former foes. In some cases, resolution was more elusive.

To humbly ponder what America went through in that 14-year period last century in which more than 50,000 of our countrymen gave their lives may help us to forgive – and realize that perhaps we need to be forgiven. Most Vietnamese people I met during my trip seemingly have done so already. America is not seen as evil or bad. Because many Americans are now doing things like trying to reverse the environmental damage done from the war, we are even thought to be good. We are thought to be…friends.

Vietnam may indeed yet become one of the ‘biggest” small nations in the world. If so, it will be in part because of the big heartedness of people – on both sides of the ocean.