Return to Vietnam

By Nancy Smoyer

In April 1993, I went back to Vietnam for a month with the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project. Our group was small--three combat veterans and myself, a Red Cross Donut Dolly.

We spent two weeks renovating a clinic at Cu Chi and two weeks traveling north to Hanoi. We worked and traveled with former Viet Cong and NVA soldiers which added an unexpected but very welcome and therapeutic element to the experience, especially since I was stationed at Cu Chi during Tet. It was an unsettling experience to be introduced to a fellow worker who was the head of the local veteran's group, learn that he had been at Cu Chi during the entire war, and realize that this man was lobbing mortars and rockets at me during Tet. However, during the two weeks we worked together on the clinic, we formed a special relationship in spite of our language difficulties. He gave me his gold star pin and I gave him a pin from the 10th anniversary of the Wall; we joked and teased and spoke of friendship and peace. His face became the face which humanized the enemy for me.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. The most important thing that happened was a process I found myself going through during my first week there which caught me completely by surprise. My primary reason for going back was to get over the feelings of anger and animosity I've carried for the Vietnamese for 25 years. Although I was well aware intellectually that my feelings were for the most part irrational, I also knew that I wouldn't get over them until I went back. From my experience on other trips to Third World countries, I was pretty sure that those feelings would disappear almost immediately, which is, in fact, what happened. However, there were other aspects I hadn't foreseen.

Even as we were driving from Tan Son Nhut to Cu Chi, I found myself thinking "What are all these Vietnamese doing here; where did they come from?" and "Where are the GIs?" It was so strange and upsetting to see NO American presence, nothing to indicate that we had ever been there. It made the whole thing--the war, the losses, the pain-- seem even more of a waste. During the first few days I found myself getting more and more depressed as the guys in the group were getting more and more excited about how wonderful everything was. I wasn't interacting with the Vietnamese people on the worksite or getting involved the way I normally do when I travel, and I couldn't figure out why I was acting so differently.

Then, at the end of the third day, I had a revelation. I realized that I was mourning the loss of "my" Vietnam. As I thought about it, I was able to identify the stages of the grief. My denial has been in thinking about Vietnam as being unchanged since I left, complete with GIs and fire bases and choppers everywhere. Instead, I was hit in the face with a completely different country, a new reality, which I didn't want and couldn't accept. My bargaining has been that if I keep connected with vets and activities related to Vietnam, then the experience stays alive and not over. The anger I've felt has been toward the Vietnamese people, the Vietnamese government, AND the American people and the American government. Those feelings of anger have spilled over in many parts of my life. And then there was the depression which I've dealt with in various forms for years, and which was hitting me full force again right then and there.

As I understood this, I knew that I had already dealt with the anger toward the Vietnamese people--that left immediately. And after working with the Vietnamese veterans and going into their homes and meeting their families, it was impossible to continue carrying my negative feelings. As I read "The Tunnels of Cu Chi" and crawled through the tunnels, saw picutres in every home we visited of family members who had died in the wars, visited the massive graveyards and memorials to the war dead, heard about the 300,000 Vietnamese who are still missing, I gained a compassion and understanding which I hadn't allowed myself to feel before. I had accomplished what I came back to Vietnam to do.

But even though I now understood much of what I was feeling and had even gotten over my negative feelings toward the people, I was still not at the point of acceptance. As I told the guys, I wasn't ready to give Vietnam back to the Vietnamese. But then after a week or so of being unable to talk about my changed feelings toward the Vietnamese people without choking up, I realized that it was over. I was done with Vietnam. Not done with the vets or with the aftereffects of the war, but done with the country and with the people. It's their country, they fought for it (on both sides), they earned it; and, although I now care for them whereas I didn't before, that part is finished. I still have all the other aspects of Vietnam (the war, not the country) to deal with, but at least one is taken care of.

Now I have two Vietnams--the one in my memory and in my pictures and in my vets, and the Vietnamese Vietnam. It had been "my" country for a while--my GI Vietnam--and yet it was theirs, and should have been, all along. I had been afraid of losing my Vietnam, of having to replace it with the "real" one, but now I realize I can keep them both--different but the same, separate but together, entwined.

So that was my experience. Traveling north after that was almost anticlimactic. It was wonderful to finally see Khe Sanh and other Marine fire bases, to get sand from China Beach, to go to the village near Da Nang where my brother was killed, to search for the Red Cross villa in Da Nang (which I never could find), to look for bullet holes in the Citadel, to visit the fascinating and disturbing war museum in Hanoi where the possessions of the POW/MIAs have been stored, and to just take care of unfinished business.

Other observations. The Vietnamese people really are as friendly toward Americans as I had heard. They carry no grudge that I could see. I asked several of the former enemy why that was, and their response was that they had been told by their government, and they firmly believed, that American GIs were not there because they wanted to be but because their government sent them; so that made all the difference in their attitude toward us. After we had seen the museum and site of the My Lai massacre, our Vietnamese veteran guide told us that he didn't like going there because it wasn't representative of the American GIs, that this was an aberration. (His son was killed at Khe Sanh in 1972 and has never been found. The image of him standing on Khe Sanh with a Marine who had been there during the siege I will never forget.)

The Vietnamese veterans are very puzzled and curious about Americans' PTSD. When I asked whether they experienced it, they said no because they knew what they were fighting for; and their country's response toward them was totally different. However, we did observe some stress-related problems which is not surprising after 40 years of continuous war.

I recognized nothing. Oh, Marble Mountain looked the same, and I think I recognized a field just before a bridge in Da Nang; but I could have been dropped anywhere for all I knew. The NSA hospital is empty sand dunes, the bomb craters are mostly filled in (especially in the south), the rice paddies are green, cows graze on Khe Sanh (at least inside the perimeter--mines are outside), there are tons of water buffalo, the kids are a joy--and the war is over.

Post Script--I originally wrote this about a month after I got back, five months ago. Since the trip something has happened which I hesitate to identify because I can't believe it's true or real. I had listened skeptically as I heard others talk about a change in themselves after going back to Vietnam. And yet somehow that change has happened to me. Friends have noticed that there is something different about me--I'm a little more tolerant, a little less impatient, a little more open and less negative. Somehow the cloud has lifted a little bit--I feel lighter.

I've heard that when one feeling leaves, space is made for something else to move in. I know that a lot of anger has left, but I can't identify what it is that has taken its place. I keep being afraid that the old me will return, and it may; but this reprieve has shown me that there is another side, another way to be. That realization is what makes me want to share this experience with others in hopes that they, too, might find, or make, the opportunity to let go of some of the pain.

Copyright 1994 © By Nancy Smoyer, All Rights Reserved