Our Vietnamese guide stopped cycling along the rice paddies. He leaned his bike against the fence of a lone shack and beckoned the group inside. The smell of stale liquor, made pungent by the trapped heat, caused instant gagging. “This is how rice wine is made,” an old Vietnamese man explained. “Tear it. Boil it. Then ferment it in here,” he tapped a large metal tube. “Anyone from America?” I raised my hand. “Ha! This here,” he tapped the tube grinning, “is an American ‘gift’ from the War.” He chortled again and gave me a slap on the back. I stared wide-eyed at the bombshell, and I did not say “you’re welcome”.
This is not the only time my nationality made me feel uncomfortable. When I entered the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (previously, and still spoken of colloquially as, Saigon) I quickly became dizzy and nauseated. I suffered through plaque after plaque, scoped picture after picture of the atrocities of Vietnam’s recent past, namely “The American War”, which I knew as “The Vietnam War”.
The museum, previously named “The Chinese and American Atrocities Museum” struck chords of disgust and guilt. Museum coordinators spared no detail or grotesquery, displaying pictures of torture, soldier brutality, dismemberment, disease, disfigurement, blood, guts, and death. My heart plummeted and I turned away from a display of two deformed fetuses preserved in a tank in the “Agent Orange” section.
Agent Orange is an herbacide containing the extremely toxic chemical, dioxin. The US military purchased the chemical from Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical and showered the Vietnamese countryside with the poison during the War. The forestry and agricultural industries were devastated. However, more importantly, the water and food supplies became contaminated and thousands of people came into contact with the toxins, causing diseases, deformities, and death. After the war, those suffering from the adverse effects of Agent Orange were encouraged not to reproduce, as the chemical affected DNA and carried itself into succeeding generations increasing the chances of deformed and disabled children. Agent Orange’s destructive past can be seen today in the begging eyes of street-side cripples holding out cans of clinking change for sympathetic foreigners to fill at tourist sites.
Besides the pictures, the graphic displays, the weapons, and the reconstructions, the rhetoric used in the descriptions of events provoked feelings of anger towards the foreign imposers and great sympathy for the Vietnamese people. However, I noticed that the descriptions were one-sided, that, according to Vietnamese history, the United States entered Vietnam, wholly unwelcome, and attempted to dominate its people. In fact one story board read, “The U.S. government is guilty of genocide vis-á-vis the Vietnamese people.” “Genocide,” my friends, is one of the strongest words you can use as an accusatory account of any event. It leaves no room for the other widely accepted historical account that the South Vietnamese, already in rebellion against the Communist north, requested US military support, and the US, being opposed to the rise of another Communist state, accepted this opportunity to promote Democracy and gain a strategic ally in Southeast Asia. What we do know quite certainly is that it did not work out for the Americans.
What we also can’t deny are the atrocities committed by the US military and thus US soldiers during the war. A plethora of barbaric new weapons were tested on the Vietnamese people, a conduct of war that, in present terms, would violate many international and humanitarian laws.
Coming back to the point: Should I feel guilty? Should an American citizen react with shame when presented with a gross, and real, construction of their national past? I speak, specifically, of those generations of Americans well removed from the War.
Many local merchants play on the predicated sympathies of foreigners. For example, in Laos, a country heavily bombed by the US in the Vietnam War, a girl sits on the side of the street in Luang Prabang offering small amulets made from the melted remains of shrapnel and bomb casings. I have since come to understand that the small “metal” Buddha I purchased, which hangs around my neck, is indeed plastic.
Some people prey on tourists using the guise of modern history. However, some, like the old man with the rice wine, are light-hearted about the sour history, especially with the youth. Several generations have arisen since the War, and by and large the Vietnamese people, like the people anywhere else, separate friendly civilians from their governments, and new generations from old generations.
To the question of guilt: No, as a traveler one should not feel guilty for the past actions of their country of which they were able to play no part for either side. But one should be knowledgable and respectful of the history that is represented by both sides.
The last track of the biking trail passed over a bridge along a main road into Phuong Nha National Park. Mountains surrounded expansive plains of rice stocks that billowed in the wind in scattered green waves. “And those,” an Australian man pointed to a patch of declinations in the rice, “are craters from bombs dropped during the War. Since then they’ve become little hatcheries and are fished regularly. Another American gift!” I received another hearty slap on the back. The Vietnamese guide laughed, and once again I did not say “you’re welcome.”