Partway through a trip to Vietnam last month, Keith Edgerton saw something near the city of Hanoi that captured the modern state of the Southeast Asian nation better than any notes or stories or tours ever could.
“There’s this large neon sign, bright neon lights, for I think it was Samsung,” he said. “But by the light of it, down on the ground there was this woman, down there planting rice.
“They still plant rice there the same old way they have for centuries, for millennia. That’s one of the beguiling and enchanting things about Vietnam.”
It’s an image, he said, that perfectly sums up a nation defined today in part by a contradiction, with one foot planted firmly in its rich, ancient past while it charges forward into a modern, Westernized future.
From Feb. 27 to March 9, Edgerton, who chairs Montana State University Billings’ history department, and a small group of others from the Billings area toured the California-sized nation in an effort to better understand its culture, history and place in the modern world.
The trip was originally planned to bring a group of MSUB history students, veterans of the Vietnam War and people from the community together for the trip.
However, for various reasons — such as the cost for some and worries over past experiences there during the war for others — just one student, senior history major Alicia Pavey; and one veteran, MSUB Chancellor Rolf Groseth, made the trip, along with 10 other people from Billings and Wyoming.
“I’ve never been to that part of the world before and I wanted to explore it,” Pavey said. “And I’ve known veterans and heard them talk about it, so it was important to me to learn more about it. It was a learning opportunity.”
Over the course of nine days, the group traveled about 2,000 miles from the country’s north end to its south, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang to the Mekong Delta, and many points in between.
“It’s a place that’s so profoundly important to our history,” Edgerton said. “As a historian, if you can go to the places where this stuff happened, there’s no other experiences that can replicate that. But we didn’t want to
just go to battlefield after battlefield. (We) wanted to see some of that, but also explore the historical and cultural sights.”
‘More like Miami Beach’
Groseth served in the U.S. Army from 1970 to 1971 during the Vietnam War, spending most of his time in Da Nang. Before the trip, he wasn’t sure he’d ever return to Vietnam.
“It was with some trepidation that I decided to go,” he said. “But I eventually came to think that it was time for me to go back. It was a pretty positive experience for me,” Groseth said of the trip.
While the focus of the trip wasn’t solely on sites and history related to the war, much of what the group saw and did included the war in some way.
Among tours of old battlefields and war museums — most of which group members said showed the war from a Vietnamese perspective and included commentary on perceived American motives — the group also checked out regions and landmarks that played important roles in the war.
They checked out Hỏa Lò Prison, a prisoner of war detention center famously called the Hanoi Hilton, the site of the My Lai village massacre and the Cu Chi tunnels, a 24-square-kilometer area honeycombed with a network of tunnels used by North Vietnamese forces.
A trip into the wild Mekong Delta drove home for many in the group what American service members had to face during the war. With the Mekong River winding narrowly through thick, primitive jungle on either side, Groseth described the soldiers stationed there during the war as having “the scariest jobs ever” while Edgerton said it put much of the war into perspective.
“From that, I got a new appreciation for how difficult it must have been for our guys in there,” he said. “We put them in an impossible situation. This country is not like any other. It is almost indescribably different.”
For Groseth, revisiting Da Nang, where he was stationed for more than a year, was especially memorable. He said that he tried not to worry too much about how he’d react and was pleasantly surprised upon arrival.
He found a vastly changed city and region that has rebuilt and modernized in the last 40 years. That includes the airbase where he was stationed, which is now the Da Nang airport.
“Coming down into Da Nang was a revelation,” Groseth said. “It was amazing for me. It was unrecognizable. I’ve been saying that when I was there it looked like Omaha Beach and now it looks more like Miami Beach. It was pretty gratifying to see that.”
North to south
Pavey said that while many aspects of Vietnam stuck out to her, the most striking was the difference between the north and south halves of the country.
“The north is very different from the U.S.,” she said. “But the south is very Westernized.”
Even though large swaths of the country remain largely rural and agricultural, dominated by the production of wet rice, many of its large cities have modernized — Western fast food chains aren’t so rare anymore, global companies and products are much more common and bustling European-style towns can be found — and Vietnam now has one of the fastest-growing economies on the planet.
“But between those cities, in the inland areas, a lot of the past is still the present,” Edgerton said. “You see some of these areas, and it could be Vietnam in the 1200s or Vietnam today.”
Everywhere the group went, the Vietnamese people were, as Groseth put it, “unfailingly polite.”
In the north they weren’t as likely to return a smile as in the south, but everybody — from tour guides at war memorials to villagers near the town of Hue — treated them well.
“I always like to focus on the people and how they react,” Pavey said. “People there seemed more than willing to open up to you.”
Vietnam is a young country, with about 70 percent of the population 30 years old or younger, meaning many weren’t around for the war. Many of them grew up with a nonwartime global influence, and that was reflected in the Billings group’s experience.
“Things are definitely different than they were 40 years ago,” Groseth said. “A lot changes in 40 years. Who knows what the place will look like in another 20?”
With so much of the country left unexplored on the most recent trip, Edgerton said he plans to organize another similar trip to Vietnam at some point.
He said it’s tough to put his finger on the country’s appeal, but said it’s not like other places, where visiting once is enough.
“Oh, we’re going to go back,” he said. “It’s going to happen.”
Pavey, who spent another four days in Cambodia right after the trip, said she’d gladly return and hopes to soon.
“There’s so much to see and to do,” she said. “We just scratched the surface, with the kind of touristy stuff. It’d be nice to go back and dig in behind all of that.”