The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is bringing me back to a piece of his past — and mine.
Granted, Vietnam was not nearly Kennedy’s war as much as it was those who followed, but our involvement grew a bit stronger on his watch, and he was said to have worried about how to play it, because he could see it being a no-win situation.
How right he was. I’m not going to call Vietnam the Iraq or Afghanistan of its time. But let’s just say it was one of many unpopular conflicts involving the U.S. (PL continues to be a politics-free zone; I’m just stating fact.)
The backstory: Vietnam was once controlled by the French. France struggled to gain the upper hand for years, then gave up. The nation was split in two: North and South Vietnam. A firebrand named Ho Chi Minh was head of the communist regime in North Vietnam, and was determined to reunite Vietnam under communist rule.
The North’s allies, the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, were also working toward that end. Enter the United States, to try to stop them. The goal: to stop communism from spreading throughout southeast Asia.
This bloody struggle went on for years, with other countries like Australia and the former Soviet Union getting into the fray. Consider this, from the History Channel: More than 3 million people (including 58,000 Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War; more than half were Vietnamese civilians.
In 1969, the U.S. was up to its ears. More than half a million U.S. military personnel were over there.
It’s sobering, but not surprising to read those stats now about something that was a backdrop for most of my childhood. Like Iraq and Afghanistan did for a time, Vietnam dominated the news every day.
I was a teenager at the height of the U.S. involvement. Every night the TV news featured reality TV, long before anyone had capitalized on the concept. This was Survivor, for real.
Except many of the young Americans didn’t. They met their end in a part of the world that looked like a tropical paradise, actually — except for all the carnage.
Those scenes would be interspersed with video of protests on the streets of America, also almost every day. From folks who wanted us out. Said we had no reason to be there.
My family wasn’t touched, but I knew plenty that watched as loved ones went off to war. They had no choice because these were the days when the draft was mandatory.
Some went and never came home. Others came back broken, to this day. I once met a guy in Montreal who was a Vietnam draft dodger; there were many like him who fled to Canada for that very reason. Or others who did whatever they could to avoid the draft.
(For a fictionalized version of the horror, check out the only Oliver Stone movie I ever liked — Platoon. Or Coming Home.)
Anyway, the last I remember about that time was watching the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the victorious Communists, when Richard Nixon — who once ran unsuccessfully for the White House against JFK — was president.
Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnam was one country again. Still communist.
I always wondered what Vietnam — and especially the former Saigon were like. Had the communist North obliterated the French and American influences?
I decided to tack on a visit to Ho Chi Minh City to my time on the Eastern & Oriental Express and in Bangkok. Just a quick peek. All I had time and money for.
The folks at one of my local Vietnamese restaurants in Pennsylvania were puzzled when I told them I was going to Ho Chi Minh. Why? They asked. Too crowded and crazy.
Yes, it was. But compared to Bangkok, which was exotic enough, but seemed stagnant, Ho Chi Minh City was so alive. Sure it comes at you nonstop, but that’s part of its charm.
Ho Chi Minh himself may be staring at you in the main post office …
And there’s no doubt you’re in a communist country …
But Ho Chi Minh City is still known as Saigon to many.
After all these decades, the city’s French roots are still showing …
Right down to the architecture of the home I stayed in (which apparently is no longer available, but there are plenty more here.) Like the vibrant city, the young professional couple I rented a room from were up on the latest everything.
We had the Internet, but I couldn’t access Facebook. Technical glitch or government interference? No one could — or would — say for sure.
What is for sure is that the government isn’t about to let anyone forget the Vietnam War. There’s a huge museum that’s a big tourist draw and a daily reminder.
It was surreal being a spectator in this place, and having some of my childhood memories mirrored back — from Vietnam’s point of view.
But that was then …
… And this is now.
Another surreal moment: On the roof of the Rex Hotel, once a hangout for journalists covering the war.
Again, that was then.
And this is now.
The people were incredibly friendly to this Yank. I’ll never forget them.
To see how Vietnamese comfort soup (pho) in the homeland compares with what you’d get in your favorite restaurant at home, click here.