BACK TO VIETNAM
FOR THE FIRST TIME
It was 38 years ago, when
I turned 18, that I got my draft number from the Selective Service Bureau.
At the time, the lottery system was in place, meaning they drew birthdays,
and if your number was a low one, you’d be off to fight the Commies in
This prompted my father, who wrote a nationally
syndicated column, to come up with one of the great column titles of all
time: "Who Needs an Unlucky Army?"
number was something like 325, so I wasn’t going anywhere. And it was
1972 and the war was gradually coming to an end, at least for the
Americans. No one got drafted that year, or ever since.
But that didn’t
stop me from going to Vietnam. I love my country as much as anyone, and I
was ready to serve. I just waited 38 years for things to cool down a bit.
And after spending
the last 10 days touring Vietnam, I can proudly announce that, despite
rumors to the contrary, we apparently did indeed win the war. Eventually.
Being a brave
American, I flew directly into Hanoi, the home base of the Viet Cong and
our mortal enemy, the North Vietnamese. I wanted to step right into the
fire. So when I encountered my first English speaking Vietnamese person, I
was ready with some good old American bravado.
"I was very
much against the war when I was a teenager," I announced to our tour
guide, Nguyen, as he led us around Hanoi. "A lot of people were
against the war."
Nguyen was 30
years old, born in 1980. The war was over in 1975. He just nodded and
smiled, pointing out areas that had been bombed by the Americans.
When we got to the
"Hanoi Hilton," where John McCain and other American pilots were
kept in prison for years, there were some photos of anti-war protesters in
San Francisco from the late 1960’s in one of the exhibits.
"I THINK THAT’S
ME!" I lied, pointing to some face in the crowd. "I hated the
war. I thought it was all wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong."
Nguyen still didn’t
react. Either he didn’t understand me, he didn’t care, or he hated me.
I couldn’t tell. My wife, however, was disgusted with my groveling. Of
course, she had already made it clear to Nguyen that she had been born in
After seeing a few
more spots that American planes had bombed into kingdom come and since
rebuilt, the tour ended. Prompted mostly by guilt, I gave Nguyen a very
healthy tip, and we were on our way to the South, where our comrades
It didn’t look a
lot different than the North. Capitalism has gone wild in this Communist
country. Everyone is an entrepreneur, and all aspire to make it big. There
is a Rolls Royce dealership, Mercedes dealerships, and a robust economy
that is growing very, very fast.
everywhere. The streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly called
Saigon, and I wasn’t about to slip up), are absolute chaos. Almost
everyone gets around on a motorbike, and watching thousands of them
maneuver through a single street is a fascinating delight.
The war is a
distant memory, or not a memory at all, for most of the Vietnamese people.
They’ve clearly moved on, and they are very, very happy to take American
money, or Canadian money, or German money. Whatever Communism in Vietnam
means these days, it certainly has nothing to do with sharing.
I was the one
having trouble letting go. It was hard not to think of the 50,000
Americans and 3 million Vietnamese who died fighting the "American
War," as the Vietnamese call it. We lost, but the Vietnamese people,
and capitalism, seemed to have won.
The only thing
missing from this vibrant, super-charged economy is the presence of the
American chains such as McDonald’s and Starbucks. But they’re coming.
"We already have a
KFD," announced our Ho Chi Minh City tour guide, Sang, when I noted
the absence of any McDonald’s.
KFC," I corrected, chuckling at his broken English.
no," replied Sang, smiling. "KFD. Kentucky Fried Dog."
Just then a
motorbike whizzed past with a cage loaded with rangy mutts strapped to the
back, obviously headed for a local restaurant. The war suddenly became a
distant memory for me, too. There was other work to do.