Russell’s time in Vietnam (on this trip, at least) is rapidly drawing to a close. Tomorrow he flies from Hanoi back to the States.
Hanoi conjures up interesting images for people who are in the 50-something age range. We think of Jane Fonda, the “Hanoi Hilton,” and other Vietnam War images that are decades out of date. Now, there is an honest-to-God Hanoi Hilton — that is, a hotel operated in Hanoi by the Hilton Corporation. It is called the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel and boasts of being designated Vietnam’s top hotel for five years running.
The meaning of “Hanoi Hilton” is not the only thing that has changed in the 30-plus years since the pointless Vietnam War drew to a close. The United States now has an embassy in Vietnam, and the embassy website speaks to how much the relationship has changed since the depressing images of overloaded helicopters taking off from the United States Embassy were seared into the American consciousness. Today, the United States is Vietnam’s largest export market and third-largest overall trading partner; in 2009 trade between the two countries exceeded $15 billion. 13,000 Vietnamese citizens study in the United States, and the U.S. recently commemorated 15 years of “normalized” relations with Vietnam.
What does this mean? I think it means that Russell made a very good choice in his decision to select Vietnam as a place to visit, thanks to the generous Weitzel-Barber grant program. It is a country in transition, where the “War Remnants Museum” in Ho Chi Minh City stands cheek-by-jowl with beachfront resorts and tailor shops creating handmade suits. It is a land rapidly emerging from the shadow of a terrible war that will always evoke disturbing images among Vietnamese and Americans of a certain age — but it also is a testament to how time and effort can change strongly rooted perception. For Russell, who never watched the flickering images of bloody combat on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, Vietnam will always be a place defined, for good or ill, largely by his weeks of travel during the summer of 2010. He bears an accurate, first-hand perception of this exotic country half a world away; my understanding, on the other hand, is warped by out-of-date perceptions that no more reflect current reality than Laugh-In reflects current television programming.
This is why travel, and having the essential first-hand experiences, is so important. I am eager to see Russell and hear what he has to say about his weeks of travel in a foreign land.