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Vietnam 40 years later — and why Americans should visit

REUTERS/Nguyen Huy Kham
Hanoi is a 1,000-year-old city with Chinese and French influences from past invasions, but it is transforming itself into a modern city.

Why is it that mentioning Vietnam to people of a certain age often incites a knee-jerk response such as “Don’t they hate us?” or “Why would you want to go there?” as if the country were caught in a time warp, forever recycling 1975? Coming of age in the ’70s means that I do have images of the Vietnam War seared into my brain, but I have been intrigued by the country and have wanted to go there for some time. So this past March, My husband and I signed up for a two-week stint in Hanoi, teaching English for Global Volunteers.

Peter was assigned to a middle school with many classes of rambunctious sixth-graders, which suited his energy level and penchant to be the “big man on campus” perfectly. I was assigned to Blind Link, a nonprofit organization that helps blind massage therapists (the career path for most blind people in Vietnam) learn English to serve their growing western and Asian clientele. It is challenging enough to teach English as a second language to sighted people but really difficult when you can’t use any visual cues to teach. Nonetheless, I welcomed the challenge and found that I could connect with these lovely and trusting students on a level that transcended the visual barriers.

Youthful and vibrant

Courtesy of the author
The author with her students in Vietnam

Contrary to misperceptions still present in the United States, we found Vietnam to be a vibrant, young (more than 80 percent of today’s Vietnamese were born after 1975), energetic and very welcoming country that appears on brink of transforming itself into a serious economic power. The people we met were so grateful for our presence and enthusiastic about learning English that we felt truly valued both as volunteers and as tourists.

Hanoi itself is a 1,000-year-old city with Chinese and French influences from past invasions, but it is transforming itself into a modern city with all that that entails. Most Hanoians ride motorbikes or buses rather than cars, and the flow of traffic in the city is a truly remarkable sight: Pedestrians wade out into the traffic like forging a stream with a continuous flowing motion of vehicles around them. This organic motion says much to me about how the Vietnamese seem to approach life in general: There is an attitude of letting the past go and embracing the future with a degree of optimism that I don’t see to the same degree in the States.

Not surprisingly, we saw few Americans during our stay in Vietnam; most of the tourists we encountered were Asians and Europeans and, of course, the common language was English.

Returnees after leaving in ’75

We did meet several Vietnamese-Americans who were returning to see their home country again since leaving in 1975. These were impressive people who had undergone unfathomable hardship to come to the U.S. 40 years ago and embrace the American Dream, making something of themselves through perseverance and hard work. As they said to us often: “Americans really don’t know how good they have it,” and I would certainly concur.

Vietnam looks like a country that works: The crime rate is incredibly low, the streets in Hanoi are clean and safe, a woman can feel free to walk alone late at night, children appear well-fed and loved, the garbage is collected daily, and even those with little are actively engaged in their individual enterprises. Albeit, glimpses of Big Brother and inefficiency do crop up, and there does not seem to be any major effort to clean up the air or the water.

So why don’t more Americans visit Vietnam? I think many of us of a certain age still hold baggage from a sad chapter in our history and we have a hard time moving beyond it. I think we should follow the path of our Vietnamese friends: Let it go and step into the flow.

Laura Merriam is a retired corporate executive and past board member of the Minnesota International Center. 


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/29/2015 - 11:17 am.


    Although I appreciate that this article lays out why our perceptions about Vietnam are flawed, that doesn’t really provide a compelling reason why a person should go–only that the supposed reasons why not are wrong. There are plenty of modern cities, safe cities, in the US. Obviously, most of those cities have a large population that speaks English, and airfare is probably going to be cheaper to those places. There are also modern and safe cities in other countries. Some of them even have pretty clean air and water. So, why would a person want to go to a 1000 year old city that is transforming itself into a modern city?

  2. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 05/29/2015 - 10:15 pm.

    I visited…

    in the 70’s and returned to a very unwelcome reception led by the left in this country. And you are telling me to visit again?

  3. Submitted by Eric Andersen on 05/30/2015 - 08:55 am.

    I have visited Vietnam twice

    6 weeks in 2013 and 10 weeks in 2014. And I will be going back next summer.

    Terrific, kind people. Saw more genuine smiles than anywhere else I have traveled.

    If you eat like a local, which is delicious and healthy, you can get by on less than $10 per day for food.

    Being from rural northern MN, everything in Vietnam is different and interesting.

  4. Submitted by Ron Derouen on 05/30/2015 - 05:29 pm.

    Vietnam Trip

    Great article and it is truthful. Most people visit Vietnam for the sights, I go to visit and interact with the people. I was one of the few Americans 50 years ago that spoke Old French and I was treated like family. Returned two years ago to look for a Vietnamese Army friend and find the man that could hand carve a fish on a pool cue. Just returned four weeks ago from a 90 day visa and had 6 pool cues made. Will return July 2016 and stay one week in Dalat to look for friend. I return to ChoLon ( China Town ) fifteen miles west of Saigon. Founded by Chinese from South China 230 years ago at the same time America was founded. The author is in the right place at this point of her life because if she does not teach these blind students English, no one else will. She only spoke of Hanoi but more action in Saigon where the people really love Americans. Speaking English allows Vietnamese to get the best jobs.
    For an answer as to why go to Vietnam young lady, maybe to take small dolls and stuffed animals to a Bhudist Temple orphanage for girls, boys and babies. Or you could teach beginner English as I did to 17 students two nights a week at a Christian church. You also see many Americans in Saigon but very few in ChoLon. I had the privilege of buying the first telivision owned by a Vietnamese fifty hears ago in Saigon. In 1975 in Houston, Texas I sponsored more Vietnamese than any American, over 120. I love the people who three months ago scored the highest in the world at 95 % believe capitalism is good, in America 74%. They still great me like family.

  5. Submitted by Tom Linzmeier on 06/04/2015 - 11:22 pm.

    Wintering in Vietnam regularly

    I have traveled to Vietnam 15 times since 2007. My first visit was in 1970 on a free ticket from Uncle Sam. I now winter in Vietnam – Hanoi mostly – and find it a wonderful engaging place. I would repeat Ron’s comment above from a recent Pew Study – – ranking Vietnam highest country in the world at 95 % believe capitalism is the best system. Of note, China was the second highest ranked country in the world believing in Capitalism… My how the worm turns…..personally I find Vietnam more like the USA I grew up 50 years ago than the USA of today… Love the USA as number one but feel very comfortable in Vietnam. Soon you will see Vietnam as one of the top countries recommended for Americans who want to retire abroad. I Guarantee that.. It is already creeping into the top ten by some retire abroad sources.

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