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Walkabout: Vietnam — what a rush!    
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Walkabout: Vietnam — what a rush!
Mar 02 2018

In Vietnam, it’s always rush hour. The streets are so packed — at all hours — that our rush hours look almost deserted by comparison.

For every car, which most Vietnamese can’t afford, hundreds of bicycles and scooters zoom by in swarms, wedging the flow to make turns, sometimes in the wrong direction, honking continuously. Their drivers wear helmets and protective masks against exhaust.

Your only hope of crossing a street is just to step out. Traffic will flow around you. Stop lights are sparse. This orderly disorder seems to work, though. I didn’t see one accident in Da Nang, Hoi An, Dong Ha, Quang Tri City, Hue or Hanoi, a city of 7 million people.

During rare free time on a recent tour with U.S. military veterans and their families, I tried to stroll, but sidewalks were usually blocked by parked scooters, piles of bricks and blocks, mounds of dirt or sand, merchandise, people cooking on grills or eating and drinking at plastic tables.

Village life slid by the windows of our bus — small plaster houses with corrugated metal roofs in rows along the road, water-stained and mildewed; laundry drying on stone walls; pocket gardens growing vegetables; lounging dogs, chickens pecking around and lots of mud.

Fifty years later, the places the veterans remember have been altered. Old air bases are overgrown and ghostly. The Hotel Saigon Morin, a five-star hotel in Hue, was Hue University in 1968. During the Tet Offensive, its courtyard was strewn with dead bodies and the bloody boot prints of Marines darting for cover.

Most buildings were built and most of the population was born after the war. Expatriate Rick Ellis, in an op-ed in the Tuoi Tre News, wrote that if “the war” is mentioned, most Vietnamese think of the more recent Chinese incursions.

“The American War is a very small amount of time on their timeline of being occupied,” said Chuck Meadows, who, after retiring as a career Marine colonel, has done reparation work with Peace Trees, a nonprofit that helps the Vietnamese dig up unexploded ordnance and dispatch it safely. “Six, eight years ago, we went to Hanoi on a 1,000th anniversary. We Americans can’t get our minds around that” span of time.

One veteran on the trip, Bob Rider of Albuquerque, N.M., noted all the little shops — one after another, block after block — open to the air, alive with patrons, even in small towns. He wondered how they make it. I thought it may be because there are so few big stores. We saw Starbucks, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a few other American chains in Hanoi, but Vietnamese enterprise is mostly grassroots — and they take U.S. dollars.

In the early 1990s, the Communist government began allowing people to own property and businesses. It obviously knew better than to stifle such a powerful economic engine.

That policy allowed Phan Cu security for his Mandarin Cafe in Hue. He had been displaced twice by the government but now owns the building his restaurant is in.

“More tourists started coming,” he said, “and my restaurant has been busy.”

Veterans return with decades of internal conflict. Some are tortured by survivor’s guilt, by the seemingly random snuffing out of life they witnessed. Their mental images sometimes still wake them in panic. They sometimes still hear screams. This overstimulation caused by horror afflicted the Vietnamese, too, but there are few elders left. The overstimulation of Vietnam now is of kinetic vibrancy.

Many Americans still pick at the war like a splinter, still decry the years of government lies, waste and sacrifice. But 43 years after we extricated ourselves, Vietnam is at peace and whole.

Communism has survived this long, and it may be what the people will continue to want. They have no choice at the ballot box, but communism may otherwise be contested. The Vietnamese are a lovely people who know how to outlast what they don’t want to endure.

Mr. Meadows, who in 1968 led Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in the Battle of Hue, gave me an entirely new worldview when I asked what he thought an American victory would have looked like.

“I don’t jump to the conclusion we lost the war,” he said. “They can now own their own businesses and land. English is their second language. They have fancy shopping malls and beach resorts better than Florida would ever hope to have.

“Time has a way of changing the perspective.” - Post-Gazette