As a child and young teenager I adored Westerns: Cowboys and Indians! I remember gripping the edge of my seat as on the screen hordes of whooping Indians – the ‘Baddies’ – swooped down with murderous fury on wagon trains, stagecoaches and the like, only to be put to flight just in the nick of time by John Wayne and the US cavalry – the ‘Goodies’! Only later did I realize that it was the other way round, that the Indians were in fact the ‘Goodies’!
The ‘60s brought the Vietnam War and with it fierce anti-American contestation: protests, demonstrations and sit-ins all over Britain, the US and Europe. As a student, however, I was on the American side, firmly supporting what I was then convinced was a just, noble, ideological war to free a nation from the evils of Communism. After graduating my priorities changed. I left Britain, the war ended and I never gave it much thought after that. Not until I visited Vietnam 40 years later, that is.
Even though 40 years have passed, it’s impossible to visit Vietnam without considering the war. Names such as Hanoi, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) conjure up memories of those years, and the guides often referred to ‘the American Invasion’. Invasion? What a strange word!
In Hanoi we visited the mausoleum and residence of Ho Chi Minh – the Tyrant! and were amazed to see that he is literally worshipped by the modern-day Vietnamese. As the visit continued it became easier to understand why: after 1000 years of invasions and foreign domination – Mongols, Chinese, Japanese, the French, the Americans – Ho Chi Minh at last united the Vietnamese as a nation against the invaders.
Later on, on the outskirts of Saigon, we visited a Vietnamese war cemetery, but no-one had the courage to ask: North or South Vietnamese? It’s a concept which just doesn’t exist today.
A visit of the Army Museum in Hanoi revealed the horrifying dimensions of the war for the type and amount of arms used by the Americans, but this was nothing compared to the impact of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City with its photographic and journalistic evidence of the horrors of the war. I personally felt physically sick at the testimonies of journalists and soldiers who had taken part in the attacks at the time, and completed the visit with great difficulty.
The next stop was Cu Chi, in the jungle north of Saigon, where in a system of manmade underground tunnels the Viet Cong had their headquarters and conducted their campaign against the invaders, using only conventional weapons and their wits against the horrible, sophisticated maiming bombs and arms of the Americans. It was literally David against Goliath, and David in the end won. Here I had an epiphany: it was Cowboys and Indians all over again. I had to reconsider my convictions of 40 years.
In the ‘60s there was so much pro-American propaganda, and now, at last, 40 years on, here was the other side of the coin. The ‘Baddies’ were the Americans who, far from conducting an ideological war, wanted control of Vietnam, which occupies a strategic position on the sea between the Pacific and Indian Oceans (now in the sights of China), while the Viet Cong – and a large proportion of the Vietnamese people – wanted only to free their country of the last in a long series of invaders and live as a united nation.
In this, it seems, they have succeeded, with, today, a thriving economy. Vietnam is now the second world producer of rice and coffee, a goal unthinkable 40 years ago.