I was a struggling student in Washington D.C. during the last years of the Vietnam War, and barely had time for an occasional rally where I was a face among thousands. Still, the daily reports of what was happening 8,000 miles away stayed with me, and came back to haunt me during a recent trip to Vietnam.
The only visible sign of the war that I found in the north was at the prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Now a museum, a good deal of the history displayed was of the French occupation during the first half of the 20th century. Its paltry concession to the imprisoned POWs who suffered there was in the form of a sign near the exit.
In Đà Lạt I met two retired Vietcong, one welcoming me into his home, appearing more comfortable with me than I was with him. I watched his face for a sign of how bad it had been, but all he did was smile. The other was a VC officer who extended his hand and told me “it was over.” As I took it, I wondered if soldiers ever forget the fighting.
The few people who spoke about the communist regime that we had fought so hard to prevent, merely mentioned their restrictions in travel or touched on the treatment of political dissidents. One South Vietnamese soldier spoke about being on the “side that lost” when recollecting his experience in the reeducation camps. The solemn expression on his face made me believe the memory would never fade for him.
Most people talked about their families, saving up for a home or a motorcycle, and their work. It felt like they’d had enough fighting and disunity, and just wanted to get on with their lives.
I finally found the war in the south, in the underground tunnels of Củ Chi where VC had scrambled out from manhole-like covers to fight. I descended into passageways so narrow I could barely squeeze through, and tiny rooms so claustrophobic I could barely breathe. When I finally emerged to sunlight, I knew the people who had endured those tunnels would never have surrendered.
Sometimes, I think of the lives disrupted by war in Vietnam, and all the other wars in all the places in the world. I admire those who were able to get on with the business of living when peace came, no matter how long it took. Sometimes, I think of all the young men and women who lost their lives, and they break my heart.
I hope the memory of them will always break my heart.
A retired engineer, Ursula Wong writes about strong women. Her award-winning debut novel, Purple Trees, and her second novel, Amber Wolf, portray strong women struggling against impossible odds to claim a better life.
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