Phuong Ngan Do
is a senior editor at the International Affairs Review, a weekly newspaper in Hanoi. She is currently living in Pittsburgh and
working for the Post-Gazette on a six-month Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship, which annually brings foreign journalists to the United States to
observe firsthand the workings of the free press in America. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Vietnamese people remember the past but they live in the present, where the United States is a friend, Phuong Ngan Do
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ~ Sunday, July 16, 2006
All my beloved relatives and friends in Vietnam congratulated me when they heard that I would be coming to study in the United States. Conversely,
when my American friend in Pittsburgh, Noreen Doloughty, was going to visit Vietnam, her friends and relatives feared the worst.
That is as surprising as it is backward. The threat of terrorism looms over the United States, and the warning level from the Homeland Security
Department sometimes moves from yellow to orange. In the meantime, the world media haven't reported any terrorist activities in Vietnam, which is
considered a safe country.
The problem is the perception of each nation. My relatives and friends don't remember the U.S. bombs but think of the United States as an advanced
country where I can learn a lot. Noreen's relatives and friends can't forget the Vietnam of the 1960s and '70s and, of course, what Americans call
the Vietnam War.
It's not easy to forget the past, especially a difficult one. Although two-thirds of the Vietnamese population, including me, was born after the war
and has no recollection of that hard period, we sense and feel the war's legacy every day.
When I was in primary school, I was so excited to participate in a campaign called "Silk Shirt for Grandma." Through this campaign, school kids
saved a little money that their parents gave them for buying breakfast to buy instead clothes for old women who had lost children in the war, as many
as eight sons in some cases. These old women -- in Vietnam, we call all old ladies grandmas -- now live alone and in poverty.
When I grew up, boyfriends invited me to go out or wrote love letters to me. I felt lucky, because there are women in Vietnam who have never had that
chance in their lives. They fought in the war even when they were only 18, then endured harsh times for years thereafter. By war's end, many were
weak, many were wounded. Meanwhile, many of their male peers had died in the war, leaving few men for them to date.
So, instead of returning to their hometowns, they live together on big farms, planting trees and raising cattle. Some begged strangers to impregnate
them. As a result, many children don't know their fathers.
When I became a journalist and could travel outside my hometown, I saw a lot of children with birth defects -- the victims of Agent Orange. The
all-too-sad and all-too-familiar story went like this: The man was lucky to return home safely without any major wounds. He was so happy until his
first child was born. The child had no legs. Vietnamese doctors informed him that he eventually might suffer the effects of Agent Orange (the toxic
chemical U.S. forces sprayed on Vietnamese forests in the war to destroy the trees and leaves).
Such men were warned immediately not to impregnate more women. But hope persists and dreams die hard, so they tried again to have a child. And then,
another child would be born without arms. Few couples tried again after they screamed when presented with an infant without arms or legs.
American troops also suffered a lot in Vietnam. Not only did they suffer the mental and physical wounds of war, but also from the apathy of others.
Freddy Baker, a war veteran who served in Vietnam in 1969, recalled that when he came back to the United States from Vietnam, somebody called him and
his friends "baby killer." Though he doesn't want to, he remembers the war every day when he sees a passing plane or hears a sudden sound.
Once our heart is hurt, all pain feels the same. Some American families cannot sleep well because they haven't found the bodies of their sons -- an
anguish shared by Vietnamese families, too. Out of 2 million Vietnamese who died in the war, thousands of bodies haven't been found. Many families
went through the funeral ritual of placing incense sticks on tombs, but an empty tomb leaves an empty heart.
But different people and, more so, different cultures react to pain in different ways. In my first few days here, I was taught much about the U.S.
culture. My teacher stressed that not all Americans feel comfortable talking about Vietnam because of the history. In Vietnam, we often say "let the
past stay in the past."
Americans are welcomed in Vietnam. Noreen's father was an American soldier who died in Vietnam but, when she visited there in March this year,
everybody smiled at her once they knew she was from the United States and shared the hurt with her once they heard about her father's death. That's
why she really wants to go back.
Considering Vietnam's long history of fighting, a 30-year period since the end of war represents a short time. My people have enjoyed the peace and
rebuilt our country. We want to work for and think of the future and a prosperous Vietnam.
Thuy Tran, a Vietnamese journalist studying in New York, was surprised when a professor there asked her: "Are you sure that there is California wine
in Vietnam?" Indeed, there is. We drink California wine, eat KFC chicken, waited to see "Mission Impossible III" or rushed to buy a new Britney
Windows, Microsoft and IBM PCs are so popularly used in Vietnam that Bill Gates is considered a role model among young people. Vietnamese students
jostled to see Mr. Gates when he visited Vietnam in April. Conversely, when I shop here, I often see clothing or shoes that bear labels telling me
they were made in Vietnam.
These might be the results of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States, 11 years ago, on July 12. Since then, a
diplomatic mission has been opened in each country and bilateral cooperation in all fields has been enhanced remarkably.
Since December 2001, when the Vietnam-U.S. Bilateral Trade Agreement took effect, there has been a boom in two-way trade between our countries.
Vietnam's exports to the United States jumped from $1.053 billion in 2001 to $5.276 billion in 2004 and nearly $7 billion in 2005. On the other hand,
the United States had 276 direct investment projects in Vietnam, ranking ninth among countries and territories investing in Vietnam.
The number of American visitors to Vietnam ranked second only to China. In the first five months of 2005, the number of U.S. tourists was more than
134,000, an increase of 14.2 percent from the same span in 2004.
Last month, Vietnam and the United States finished the Vietnam-U.S. negotiations on Vietnam's accession to the World Trade Organization, opening the
way for Vietnam to join the biggest commercial organization in the world.
Last year, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai made an historic visit to the United States, and President Bush will go to Vietnam at the end of
this year to attend the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. Last month, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Vietnam to talk about
bilateral military cooperation.
How has "normalization" worked for ordinary Vietnamese and Americans? Some American veterans overcome their pain to return to Vietnam to see what my
country is like today.
Last Sunday, I attended a Vietnamese dinner in Pittsburgh held by American veterans here. For many years, Friends of Danang has been very active in
raising funds to help disabled children in Danang, a city and province in central Vietnam where many troops were stationed during the war. This kind
of work not only helps the Vietnamese, but it also helps these veterans heal.
Raymond F. Burghardt, the second U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, said in his remarks to the Asia Society in Hong Kong in 2004: "Vietnamese people live in
the present and look to the future ... I was in Saigon from 1970-73. Now that I'm back in Vietnam 30 years later, I'm conscious of that history
every day. But like the Vietnamese people and leaders, I keep my focus on the present and the future. ..." How many Americans think as Mr. Burghardt
Remember that, despite the history between our countries, the word "Vietnam" means a people and a state, not a war.
[edit on 1/3/2008 by Dave Rabbit]