In the Trenches

Although I associate Vietnam more with tourism and digital nomads than with war, unlike my dad, it’s still impossible to not think about the war while you’re there. American troops withdrew from Vietnam only six years before I was born, so I’m old enough to have grown up feeling its impact on American culture and politics. I’ve also written many times before on this blog about my feelings on American interference in Latin America and how I often feel embarrassed to be a citizen of the world’s large bully nation, and my feelings toward our involvement in Vietnam are no different.

So it was kind of weird to be in a country that had actually defeated us…and totally downplays it. My first full day in Vietnam, we visited Hỏa Lò Prison, otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton. The experience was surreal. The first half of the tour was all about the Vietnamese who were imprisoned there by the French. The guide told us tales of atrocities the political prisoners endured, what a hellish place the prison was, and how the great revolutionaries began to find their voice there, refusing to let their spirits be broken even while enduring immense physical torture.

Then we moved on to the American era. And suddenly it was fun and games! The American POWs had Christmas parties, played board games, wrote letters home, taught their captors English. It was just a big summer camp! Yes, these brief moments happened but they were all carefully orchestrated propaganda. The reality was just as awful for American prisoners under Vietnamese captors as for Vietnamese prisoners under the French. Just go to YouTube and search “documentary Hanoi Hilton” and watch interviews with Wayne Waddell, Ken Cordier, Larry Spencer, Robert Shumaker, or, of course, John McCain.

The lies were so blatant, but I shouldn’t be surprised. Speech is still heavily controlled in Vietnam and government jobs are awarded only through nepotism or very large bribes. However, in 1986, just eleven years after the war officially ended in a Communist victory, the Vietnam government recognized the importance of sacrificing some of their ideals to play nice with the rest of world by passing the Đổi Mới economic reforms, very quickly building a market-oriented economy. And they have been wildly successful. So modern Vietnam is in this strange place of having defeated the USA but still bending to our will in some ways and seemingly as a result, there is no gloating, no animosity about our interference, and an overall tendency to play really nice with us. That’s probably why my visa to go there was only $25, instead of the $170 that the (understandably) anti-American Bolivia under Evo Morales started charging.

And we get told these lies about Hỏa Lò Prison, so that…what? We don’t get our feelings hurt? We don’t continue to be mad and cut them out of our economic plans? I’m glad for the Vietnamese people who don’t want to live under Communism that their government quickly saw the light in some ways, but I hate that we’re still the bully.

Winners and losers aside, I spent four days traipsing through the thick Vietnamese jungle in Phong Nha-Ka Bang National Park, going from epic cave to epic cave. It rained the whole time, we waded through dozens of rivers, slipped and fell in the mud, got bit by leeches, and got banged up and cut up by the jagged rocks all along the trails.

Like I said, impossible not to think about the war. All those poor boys and men, on both sides of the conflict. I rarely spend time in jungles, and even being there in the winter when the bugs are minimal, the air was cool, and humidity manageable, I could imagine, to some small degree, the horror it must have been.

But we had trails. We had porters carrying our gear from camp to camp. We had tea and a sauna tent waiting when we arrived. We had delicious, family style meals served up to us three times a day. We had dry tents and sleeping bags ready for us each night.

And we didn’t have to worry about anyone trying to kill us.

So go and enjoy, but spare a little thought for all those who needlessly lost their lives in the jungle and who endured the horrors of the Hanoi Hilton thanks to more American meddling in the world.

Secret Cave and Ken Cave

Tu Lan Cave, Kim Cave, Ton Cave

Hung Dung Valley to Hung Nhai Valley and Mooc Lake

Hang Tien 1 and Hang Tien 2

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