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The tired ‘then & now’ Vietnam war narrative

February 4, 2020·Travel

At the time of this writing I've been living in Vietnam continuously for just over two years. Pretty often I come across questions like these:

  • Are they friendly towards Americans?
  • What is it like to travel in Vietnam as an American?
  • How do people in Vietnam perceive the war nowadays?

Whenever I watch or read something about travel in Vietnam, it's always framed inside the context of Vietnam today versus 45 years ago when the country was in the clutches of a long, bloody, and brutal war. (Cue black and white montage of tanks, burning jungles, Nixon speech, etc.) Even shows that I love can't seem to resist telling this same old story over and over again, such as the Vietnam episode of Somebody Feed Phil.

Even when it happened generations ago, war and conflict continues to dominate outside perceptions of Vietnam, and so that's the first thing people ask about.

The West is obsessed with the American war in Vietnam to the degree that the word "Vietnam" itself is more often associated with the war than the actual country. The war has been romanticized in countless iconic films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Deer Hunter, and Forrest Gump.

At the same time we live in an era of peak global tourism, and generally speaking the vast majority of tourists go to countries looking to experience first-hand whatever that country is best known for. The French have cheese, wine, and the Eiffel Tower. Australia has kangaroos and coral reefs. Vietnam, unfortunately, has a war, and accordingly that's the first thing most tourists seek out when they come here.

Vlogger Nas Daily perhaps best described it in one of his recent videos:

If you look at the world map, some countries everybody knows for the right reasons, like Italy for the food and Egypt for the pyramids. But other countries everybody knows for the wrong reasons, like Iraq for war and South Africa for poverty. Take Vietnam for example. Every movie, every book, every news article that I read in the last year was about war. The Vietnam War that ended 45 years ago. But, what do people do there now?


Modern Vietnam could not be more different than the Vietnam of the 1960s and 70s.

In a country where the median age is 30 and roughly 75% of the population is too young to remember the war, as far as most Vietnamese are concerned, it's all ancient history, and it doesn't matter any more what happened 50 years ago than 100 years ago or 2,000 years ago. Vietnam actually has a long history of conflict with foreign invaders. The American war is just one of the more recent episodes.

Also, Vietnam is one of the fastest developing economies in the world, and especially since opening up in the 1990s, the sheer pace of development and construction has left very few visible scars of the war remaining. For instance, many of the most notorious battlefields of the war, such as Hamburger Hill, these days have no monument or marking whatsoever, have no direct access, more often than not are little more than anonymous GPS point inside random industrial suburbs or rural farm land.

Finding war history in Saigon nowadays is a like treasure hunt; there’s barely anything left (partially due to failure on the part of local authorities to protect historical buildings), and the few museums and landmarks that exist are, at least in my opinion, glorified tourist traps.

Why do I care?

I absolutely love living in Vietnam, so I feel an urge to correct the record. First, I want to ask everyone who's thinking of traveling to Vietnam to try and stop equating the word "Vietnam" with a war. I'm not denying that the history of the war is fascinating, but you would be better served by reading a book or watching the Ken Burns documentary. Consider skipping the War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels entirely. Not only are these attractions lackluster in their own right, but in my opinion visiting and promoting them is furthering the perception that Vietnam has nothing to offer other than war history.

Maybe the reason I feel strongly about this is because I know there is something very special about Vietnam right now that most tourists simply overlook. This is perhaps best explained by my friend Tom at Vietnam Coracle:

Vietnam is an exciting place to be at this point in time. The country is undergoing huge transformations in almost all aspects of its society and culture: from economics to eating habits, from religion to relationships, from family to foreign policy. For the traveller, tourism is in the perfect phase of transition: infrastructure is developed enough to allow access to practically all regions of the country, but undeveloped enough to make off-the-beaten-track experiences a daily occurrence, should you seek them out. But, with the current pace of change, some things – unspoiled islands, historic buildings, local eating houses – are bound to disappear forever. Don’t wait, visit now!