“You can call me Hung. It means ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’ in Vietnamese.” He looked around at the sleepy eyes bopping along the morning streets of Saigon on the way to the Củ Chi Tunnels.
“Yeah, Hung,” he said smiling. “My grandfather was Viet Cong.”
We were a small group from a few different countries, and all excited to see where the secretive, fierce and malicious Viet Cong fought deep below the battlefield. I was the only American. There were about four Irish, two Germans, maybe some British too — they never spoke so not quite sure.
Hung is a proud historian, eager to paint a picture of his people’s troubled past and brighter future. Well brighter for the most part, Hung thinks.
Vietnam was controlled by another nation for most of the 20th century. France owned the country for about 100 years. Japan took over during World War II (1940-45), and then France returned to power until 1954. The Vietnam War, or the “Resistance War Against America” as the Vietnamese call it, started in 1955 and lasted until 1975 — 20 whole years. That makes almost 140 years total that Vietnam faced oppression from another nation.
“Think about that,” Hung would say.
And even after Saigon fell and the Americans finally left Vietnam, the country was far from being at peace. 1 million people left Vietnam to escape Communist control, Hung said. They fled to America, Australia, parts of Europe.
Many years later, in 1995, America and Vietnam began to open up their economies to profit from one another. That was a clear sign that things were healing in Vietnam.
“Bill Clinton, you know, good-looking American?” Hung said with a wink. “Great guy. Lifted part of the embargo you know.”
Today, Vietnam is the No. 2 exporter for rice and coffee in the world — another indication of Vietnam’s bright future. But even producing this much food and drink, Hung said the Vietnamese people still think about food all the time. In a desperate way.
He said, “They think about it because without it, you die,” referring to the many wars they waged and farmland they lost. “Americans,” he continued, “they think about their mind because the government will feed them if they starve. See? A very different mentality.”
“Think about that,” he said.
Something else Hung paused and took a minute to reflect on was his country’s religious beliefs.
“You know, 60% of Vietnamese people do not believe in religion. They think that money, materialism is the most important,” he said tilting his head and letting out a noticeable sigh. “Really sad.”
And just when Hung finished that thought, the bus passed a Buddhist funeral, as if to reassure Hung that not all faith has been lost in his country. You could tell his spirit lifted a bit as he ducked his head to get a closer look at the ceremony and point out the monks praying. You could hear them chanting inside while musicians waited outside with their instruments. A tuba and drums sat on the sidewalk in the middle of the crowd. It reminded me of a jazz funeral at home.
On a happy note, Hung turned his attention to the bigger, brighter picture today. After almost 40 years, and Obama’s recent visit to Hanoi, he thinks the Vietnamese are finally 100% connected with Americans.
“Some people still think of them as the enemy, like in the past, but they suffer inside,” Hung said. “It’s better to think about the present and future — you will have a much better life,” he concluded.
“Think about that.”