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Then and now, Vietnam a conflicted history

It was during Bike Week when my wife and I returned recently from a three-week visit to Vietnam.

On the way home, we passed several bikers with the words “Nam Knights” stitched on their leather jackets, headed west on Interstate 4 from Daytona Beach.

Hello, brothers, I thought. Guess where we’ve been?

It’s been nearly 42 years since I went to Vietnam the first time with the U.S. Army. I’ve been back to Vietnam, now a major American trade partner, twice in the past four years.

I was struck by several things: the hospitality and generosity of the people, the brilliant green of the rice paddies and the enormous energy going into road, bridge and other building projects. The young people embrace American culture. You see it in their clothing, their love of texting, in the music.

Yet, in some sense, there are some things about the war that still make me uncomfortable. Such as when someone asked me to pose for a photo by a Soviet-made tank in front of the former presidential palace in Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City. I refused.

Why? I’m not sure, but it has something to do with my experiences and what that tank represents.

This most recent trip, I also visited the famous Cu Chi tunnel complex, used by the North Vietnamese Army to menace Saigon during the war.

Even though the tunnels have been broadened to accommodate Western-sized visitors, the underground passages remain dark, narrow and low. In a word, claustrophobic.

You have to marvel at the tenacity of an adversary to exist in such difficult conditions, especially when B-52 bombers were blasting giant craters on the surface. Yet, I found myself bristling internally at the one-sided narrative from our tour guides.

I came away with even greater respect for the American tunnel rats who crawled into those tunnels, often armed with nothing more than a .45 pistol, trying to dislodge a clever and determined enemy. That took incredible nerve and bravery.

Most of our trip was spent in my wife’s hometown of Bac Lieu, located down toward the southern tip of Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, my Signal company had a communications site in Bac Lieu. That landscape is now unrecognizable, but local Vietnamese showed me where the old U.S. Army airstrip and Army base had been located.

Back then, all that was in the country. Now the same land is part of a booming downtown. An imposing post office sits on what was the airfield and something called the “Kitty Club” sits where the old Army base was. Somehow, I think my buddies in uniform would approve of the Kitty Club.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.