Vietnam, 40 years after reunification, is modern, flourishing

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Author Barry Sussmann in entrance to a tunnel tourists can try at the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. Courtesy of Barry Sussmann

Throughout my school years, every news outlet shouted Vietnam. Da Nang, DMZ, Mekong, Tet invaded my vocabulary. Later, as I taught American history, this Asian war enticed me to experience Vietnam firsthand. My wife, Ellen, and I booked a Gatel tour with a 20-hour flight.

With North and South together, Vietnam is unlike what I had learned - it's modern, developing, and hectic. We found Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, thrilling. There, we observed thousands of motorbikes and scooters, some transporting whole families through congested avenues. Thirty-story buildings and our favorite American icons - Apple, KFC, Nike, and Starbucks - greeted us. Street peddlers pushed souvenirs for "one dollar!"

This was the 40th anniversary of the retaking of Saigon. Red banners emblazoned with gold lettering, red flags with a gold star or hammer and sickle were everywhere.

The Vietnamese appeared content as we encountered joyous school graduates in front of their Notre Dame. Everyone has a cellphone, and - just like home - they drive and talk simultaneously. At night, all ages sit outside eating or chilling at small plastic chairs and tables in the high humidity. We felt safe - and of the 50 countries I've visited, Vietnam is among the friendliest.

My reeducation began at the Cu Chi Tunnels, a hidden, 124-mile jungle network that North Vietnam used during the war to infiltrate the South. Their propaganda could have been worse, but seeing lethal traps used against U.S. soldiers made me squeamish. The tunnels connected weapons factories, storerooms, hospitals, sleeping quarters, and kitchens. Thousands were killed in them, but Viet Cong perseverance was impressive, using limited resources with unlimited ingenuity.

Camouflaged shoe-box-size entrances descended onto corridors two feet high. An expanded tourist staircase allowed me to descend and crawl on all fours through 70 feet of a dimly lit second level. I got the experience and skipped a third level.

In Hanoi, 700 miles north, a pilgrimage to Hao Lo Prison was a must. Asking for the "Hanoi Hilton" could have landed us at the luxury hotel. Saying "prison" brought us to the infamous jail where 2,000 Americans, including Sen. John McCain, were held in cramped and wretched conditions. Today, the French-built prison is a museum dedicated to Viet men and women brutally detained by their colonial masters. Just a small section on the second floor represents American captivity. Most of the penitentiary was demolished in the '90s for high-rise apartments.

Walking a long, narrow prison corridor and peering into tiny windowless cells gave me a sense of the hopelessness our soldiers braved. Photos and showcases of American mementos promoting fair treatment by their captors is not what veterans wrote about in chronicling their inhumane incarceration. A huge discrepancy exists in this propaganda room.

Besides reliving history, we enjoyed stunning scenery, river tours, beautiful beaches, marvelous markets, and traditional crafts. Hotels and restaurants are excellent, and the U.S. dollar goes far. We've had full relations with Vietnam for 20 years, and, although its politics are strictly Communist, capitalism thrives.

Barry Sussmann writes from Upper Dublin.

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