In the United States, the story of America and South Vietnam’s defeat is familiar. But North Vietnam’s war generation experienced those events differently, and several told me recently what it was like to be on the “winning” side.
Decades after what’s known here as the “American War,” Vietnam remains a communist state. But it has gradually opened to foreign investment, becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in East Asia. As an American who has lived in the Vietnamese capital for three years, I rarely hear the conflict discussed. At Huu Tiep Lake, which is located at the quiet junction of two residential alleys, vendors sell fresh produce without glancing at the wreckage of a B-52 that was shot down there in 1972 and still juts out of the water as a memorial. Nor do many passersby stop to read the plaque that describes, in both English and Vietnamese, the “outstanding feat of arm” that brought down the bomber of the “US imperialist.”
It’s rare to find such marks of the communist triumph on the streets of Hanoi. Kham Thien Street, a broad avenue in the city center, bustles with motorbikes and shops selling clothing and iPhones. There’s little evidence that some 2,000 homes were destroyed and nearly 300 people killed nearby during the 1972 “Christmas bombing,” the heaviest bombardment of the war, ordered by the Nixon administration to force the North to negotiate an end to the conflict.
“There were body parts everywhere,” recalled Pham Thai Lan, who helped with the relief effort as a medical student. It was the first time she’d seen so many corpses outside the hospital. Now a cheerful 66-year-old, she grew somber as she talked about that day. As Nguyen, the veteran, told me: “Talking about war is to talk about loss and painful memories.”
* * *
When I talk to Hanoi residents about their experiences “during the war,” they often ask me which one I mean. For members of Nguyen’s generation, the American War was one violent interlude amid several decades of fear and conflict, falling between a fight for independence from the French beginning in the 1940s and a month-long border war with China in 1979.
Vu Van Vinh, now 66, was five years old when the French left their former colony in Vietnam in 1954. By then he had learned to be wary of the French officers who patrolled the streets of his town in Quang Ninh province, northeast of Hanoi. “Whenever I saw foreigners, I felt scared,” Vu told me. Ten years later, the United States began bombing North Vietnam.
The first time he saw a B-57, he gaped skywards, trying to make sense of it: “Why is a mother airplane dropping baby airplanes?” A minute later, he said, “Everything was shaking. Stones were rolling. Houses were falling.” He raced home, panicked and confused: “I still couldn’t register what it was in my mind.”
More Info: theatlantic.com