Journey Back to Vietnam


by John Tsitrian

Country focused on its future with little interest in its past

In a photo taken near the Laotian border, John Tsitrian sits next to his translator, Thanh, whose father was a member of the enemy Viet Cong. In the foreground are some young ethnic Hmongs who populate Vietnam's central highlands. Photo by Paul Jensen

They aren’t the easiest of riders, but the Vietnamese are surely among the most plentiful, I notice during my return to the southeast Asian nation after more than 40 years.

When I was here last, I was a young Marine overwhelmed by war and trying to emerge alive. Now, I’m a deeply different person and Vietnam is a greatly changed place.

Today, you can’t find a developed hamlet or city in Vietnam that hasn’t seen its streets turn into a motorized circulatory system, a non-stop flow of motorbikes driven by grim-faced, earnest young adults busily scooting from here to there.

“Here” being an emerging, post-war society where wealth is measured by the number of CCs in your motorbike and “there” being a modern neo-industrial country where personal and economic freedoms are taken for granted, even as political aspirations are still determined by something called a “Communist” party.

Communism as a theory and a practice in Vietnam was legislated into irrelevance -- if not altogether out of existence -- by the “doi moi” reforms of 1986, which encouraged private ownership of land in the countryside and opened up personal entrepreneurial opportunities in the cities, so much so that that grand statue in central Hanoi of the Russian revolutionary hero Vladimir Lenin, the 20th century’s leading purveyor of collective ownership and central economic planning -- aka communism -- seems cloaked into memory by noise and exhaust fumes spewed out by the scurrying thousands, no, tens of thousands of motorbikes sputtering past it every hour of every day.

Those uneasy riders are whizzing by their past, indifferent to the historical underpinnings that brought them to where they are, which is an ironic state of affairs that virtually concedes the social and economic victories of the American war in Vietnam to the United States, even if the final military victory went to the northern communist leadership and armies of Hanoi, able as they were to overwhelm the hapless government in South Vietnam that the United States abandoned by pulling its troops out during the early 1970s.

There are testimonials and monuments aplenty to the millions of Vietnamese who were killed during the conflict (scouring the Internet, I find the consensus estimate to be about 4 million, 3 million of them civilians) and plenty of official commemorations on behalf of the war dead. But to the 60% of Vietnamese who were born after the 1975 ending of the war, those seem to be but dry historical data, bearing little interest and material value to their helter-skelter rush toward modernization and wealth.

As evidence, I note the shabby condition of the military museum in downtown Hanoi, which is dirty and rundown, its displays poorly organized and haphazardly presented. Attendees are a handful of curious westerners and some student groups doing their pro-forma field trips.

I also note the remains of the “Hanoi Hilton,” mostly demolished to make room for a modern high-rise complex that occupies much of the former prison’s site, where captured American fliers were held from 1964-1973. As with the nearby military museum, the downsized “Hilton’s” attendees were mainly westerners, though the site and the displays are in much better repair and more cogently presented than those in the military museum.

The grounds of the mausoleum where the body of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam’s independence movement, is enshrined are well maintained. However, the elaborate changing of the guard ceremony, during which dandified soldiers in gaudy dress uniforms goose-step through a rigid routine, was attended by me, a traveling companion and a half-dozen Vietnamese who seemed to be taking a breather from their stroll through the park.

And then, of course, there’s that statue of Lenin, largely ignored by all but me and a car packed with Asians who parked their gleaming, late-model BMW in front of it for a few moments of chatter and finger-pointing. Where was my camera when I needed it?

No matter, it’s obvious that Hanoi is all about the future with nary a nod towards its past. The business and financial district of the city is developing rapidly, nearly on par with its counterparts in other world capitals, and as clogged as the surface streets are with motorbikes, the expressways, like the eight-laner that links Hanoi with the nearby harbor city of Haiphong, are busy with automobile traffic. The cars generally are upscale, late-model makes from Japan and Europe.

Hanoi and its economic connection to the coastal plains toward the east is certainly moving apace, but for all its bracing quality to a foreigner who wants to cheer the country on, the enthusiasm is squelched by the unpleasant fact that a connection between Hanoi and points south is still burdened by a long outmoded road, Route 1, a two-laner that can barely carry the traffic of a modernizing country, especially one that’s as elongated as Vietnam.

I visited the section of that road that passes through the old border between what were then North and South Vietnam, known in those days as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where I spent 13 months as a radioman with a forward support unit of United States Marines. My tasks took me from the coast to points west, nearly to the Laotian frontier--a journey I covered in two days on my recent trip.

War’s Scars Remain

This is probably the part of Vietnam where the war has left its most lingering mark, as there are signs everywhere warning people to avoid the many remnants of unexploded ordnance left over from the conflict. That comes as no surprise as I remember the fighting at the DMZ to be vicious and sustained. One of my traveling companions, retired Marine Col. Chuck Meadows, who did ordnance disposal work in this area after his retirement from the USMC, tells me that more ordnance was dropped on this province (Quang Tri) during the Vietnam War than on all of Europe during World War II.

This region has also been slow to rebuild since war’s end, probably because of the complete devastation that took place here.

Only the once-rural village of Dong Ha, sitting at the confluence of two highways and the Cua Viet River, has grown to unrecognizable proportions since the sizable USMC combat base was the major presence in the area.

Other Marine outposts along the DMZ have either gone to seed or been developed into rubber plantations. The famous airstrip at Khe Sanh, near the Laotian border, the site of a legendary siege in 1968, is now a museum extolling what the Vietnamese consider a great victory. That must come as a surprise to the Marines who fought there, considering they held on to the base until the North Vietnamese abandoned the siege and pulled out.

Cynics say that the writing of history belongs to the victors, but historians counter that history is history, and that eventually the truth emerges. Guess we’ll have to wait a bit on the true story at Khe Sanh, but to my Marine buddies who fought there and know what happened, I can tell you this: the Vietnamese version is bull.

Other sites in the area, known as “Leatherneck Square,” have been largely ignored, though I noted with some irony and the closest moment I had to closure, that the main entrance to the base at Dong Ha is now a large, modern movie complex. It’s weird that in the prevalence of all this normalcy, surrealism lingers.

Maybe it’s the ghosts. No, not maybe -- it actually is the ghosts.

John Tsitrian is a Rapid City businessman and writer. He was accompanied on this trip by several veterans of the war in Vietnam and Rapid Citian Paul Jensen, who provided the photos taken during the trip. You can contact Tsitrian at for the Rapid City Weekly News