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08

Jul

2020

Voices from South Vietnam

Written by: Heather Stur

 
 

When I lived in Vietnam as a Fulbright scholar a few years ago, I met a restaurant owner named Nickie Tran. The food she served was some of the best I’d had in Ho Chi Minh City, so I kept going back, and we struck up a friendship over hot pot, tea, and beer, sitting on plastic stools at low tables on the sidewalk in front of her eatery. I mentioned to Nickie that I was working on a book about South Vietnamese perspectives on the Vietnam War, and she told me about her southern family, which was divided during the war. Her father and some other relatives had supported Hanoi’s vision of a unified Vietnam under the Vietnam Workers Party and secretly traveled north to train for war against South Vietnam and the Americans. The war would pit her father against his kin who fought in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). A few of Nickie’s uncles fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and made their way to the U.S. as refugees. Some of the relatives who had fought for Hanoi became disillusioned after the war as they watched northern families enjoy power and wealth while their livelihoods in the south did not change much even though they had put their bodies on the line during the war. In the decades since the Vietnam War ended, Nickie’s relatives who fought against each other have come together in their shared distrust of Vietnam’s government.

Nickie’s stories were among many I heard from people I met in southern Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City, I spoke with a spa employee whose father had fought in the ARVN, and she remained ineligible for government benefits and jobs in state-owned industries due to continued discrimination against ARVN veterans and their families. On a visit to Da Lat, my guide, Mr. Hein, was an ARVN veteran who had joined with other vets in the 1990s and founded a tour company called Da Lat Easy Riders. Mr. Hein and his colleagues had learned English working alongside Americans during the war, and as Vietnam and the U.S. moved to normalize diplomatic relations, the Da Lat Easy Riders saw an opportunity to cater to American tourists coming to Vietnam. Having fought for the enemy, ARVN vets had limited job opportunities, so some, like Mr. Hein, carved out a niche for themselves in Vietnam’s burgeoning tourism economy.

These and other stories I heard from friends I met in Vietnam and read in documents I found in Vietnamese and U.S. archives confirmed the foundational hypothesis upon which I built Saigon at War. The conventional wisdom about the Vietnam War has portrayed the conflict as one between Americans and Vietnamese without acknowledging that there were Vietnamese who opposed the communist leadership in Hanoi. That is not to justify U.S. intervention or excuse America’s escalation of the war. Rather, it is to illustrate South Vietnam’s complexity and the diversity of political attitudes that existed in the country during its short life. The long-term consequences of Hanoi’s victory in the war remain apparent in the 21st century in the lives of those who were on the losing side and as bloggers and others willing to speak out against the Vietnamese government face surveillance, arrest, and imprisonment. More than forty years after the Vietnam War ended, political freedom still eludes Vietnamese citizens.

Saigon at War By Heather Stur
Saigon at War By Heather Stur

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About the Author: Heather Stur

Heather Stur is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (2011). She is an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. Dr. Stur has won fellowships from the Society for Hi...

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