On Being an American in Vietnam

One thing people have asked us about our travels in Vietnam is whether we experienced any hostility because we’re Americans. The answer is basically no. Sometimes, on asking and hearing our nationality, people would noticeably bristle (not just those old enough to have lived through what they call the American war, but some younger adults too). But no one reacted with anger or unfriendliness or criticized us for what our country had done to theirs.

Maybe that’s not the Asian way. Or maybe it’s because, whereas for Americans the war was all about Vietnam, for Vietnamese it was just one part of 35 years of conflict—with the Japanese, then the French, and then each other (as a civil war), as well as with us. Or perhaps, as a number of people told us, that really does feel like ancient history, and Vietnam is eager to put the troubled parts of its past behind it and be on good terms with all of its visitors.

Melissa had an experience that may be an example of that. After our stunning trip through Phong Nha cave in what was once North Vietnam, Melissa climbed the hillside outside the cave to a shrine with beautiful views. The only other person there was a young Vietnamese woman praying at the shrine. Practicing her English, the woman explained parts of the temple’s art and then asked where Melissa was from. On hearing the answer, she visibly stiffened and looked grave. Then she asked Melissa to light a stick of incense with her at each altar, which Melissa did, before both went their separate ways.

We don’t know why the woman did that, but the area we were visiting had been the site of heavy bombing during the war. Perhaps Americans had killed some of her family or destroyed their home. Maybe for her this was a personal act of reconciliation, a step toward making peace with a painful past.

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