A quick glimpse into Vietnam

Stephen Harrison

Stephen Harrison

Stephen Harrison


Not many hear the word without thinking of only one thing. This was evident in the days leading up to my three-week journey to that country during the summer of 2002.

The joy and excitement I felt about my impending return to the place I had visited briefly in 2000 was offset by puzzled and awkward reactions from acquaintances when told of my plans.

After hearing, “Why do you want to go to Vietnam?” a few times from people of all ages, the reality began to dawn on me: In the American mind, Vietnam is frozen in time from the moment the last chopper lifted off the U.S. embassy in Saigon in April 1975. It was as if I were announcing I had signed up with the Army and was going to fight the communists in Southeast Asia. I was caught a bit off guard at how the demons of America’s involvement there are actually lingering just below the surface of this nation’s consciousness. So, why did I want to go to Vietnam?

First, I should probably explain what my reasons were not. I did not have the intention of reconfirming the flaws of American policies in the region through 1975. Those have been written about many times, and I probably could not add anything new.

My purpose was not to find reasons to be critical of American military.

My father was a career officer who served three tours during the war, and I am very proud of his and other veterans’ service to our country.

My goal was to learn about and share Vietnam’s past and present from the Vietnamese point of view.

Having said that, it is an almost impossible task to take on without sounding critical of the United States at times. Am I pro-communist? No.

Am I anti-American? No. I am only sharing my experience.

When Westerners speak of America’s past in Southeast Asia, we usually think in terms of the “Vietnam War” (or “Vietnam Conflict,” since war was never officially declared.) Books, documentaries and Hollywood have all depicted this period, but they almost always emphasize the American point of view: the politics, the protests, the soldiers who returned home only to be treated as criminals, etc. The portrayals of the period are just that — history. America today is an affluent, high-tech, fast-paced nation with its own current national security issues. But what about Vietnam?

Did it simply disappear back into that vague Southeast Asian world America never really knew much about?

The effects of the American War (as it is known in Vietnam) still weigh heavily on the lives of today’s Vietnamese population, most of which was born after the final communist push into Saigon (officially known today as Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975.

Many people live around, and are still maimed by, live ordnances hiding just beneath the landscape.

Children are born with deformities and illnesses linked to the U.S. military’s use of the defoliant Agent Orange during the war. Also, the complete freeze on diplomatic ties, which was normalized only seven years ago, further hindered the lives of ordinary Vietnamese people living under communist rule.

Despite all of this, the Vietnamese have survived as they always have through centuries of foreign occupation and war.

And, although the Vietnam War does not continue to touch the lives of American citizens in as personal a way (broadly speaking) as it does the Vietnamese, the legacy of the war remains with Americans as well.

While much of America’s identity is currently defined by the awful events of Sept. 11, 2001, Vietnam is still thought of in terms of what happened 30 years ago.

In this time when the United States bears great international responsibility in a troubled world, it is crucial that we do not forget the lessons of the past.

It is the perseverance of Vietnam and the still-relevant lessons to America that inspired me to return to that still recovering yet beautiful country.