You don’t know how thrilled I am to feature another guest blog post from Ali Swanson. Vietnam is very close to her heart in many ways and she’s so thoughtfully written about her father’s and her experiences there on this day that commemorates the Fall of Saigon 36 years ago. Here’s Ali:
On the morning of April 30, 1975, tanks from the People’s Army of Viet Nam (PAVN) rolled through the gates of what is now known as the Reunification Palace. The invasion of the PAVN forces and surrender of the South Vietnamese President, Duong Van Minh, marked the end of 107 years of Western colonial rule.
For many Americans, the fall of Saigon to the communist North Vietnamese forces signified the humiliating failure of American military and foreign policy. We lost a war to an enemy that was rarely seen, and one that followed political beliefs anathema to those of the vast majority of Americans. However, by war’s end, a small, but vocal, group of people–my father included–wondered if fighting a populace searching for its own voice, its own power, on its own soil, was the right thing to do.
My father served as a mechanic with the US Army in Vietnam from 1966-1968. He used to tell stories of how, at night, he and his bunker-mate would crawl on top of the bunker (in case anyone threw a grenade inside the bunker, “well, we’d just be blown off the top, maybe land in a field somewhere”), share a joint, and watch the fire-fights occurring in the jungle around their base. My father spent most of his time in Vietnam completely wasted–high on reefer or speed.
“I would spend the daytime hours, when we weren’t going in after the fire-fights to clear out the heavy machinery, reading all I could about Vietnamese history. The more I read, the more I wondered what the hell we were doing there. There was no way to make sense of any of it; at least if we were wasted, the fire-fights reminded us of fireworks back home.”
According to my dad, every fifth round of artillery fire was a “tracer” that would light up the night sky for miles, creating an effect similar to so many 4th of July fireworks celebrations.
I didn’t know my dad at all as a kid; Vietnam was an experience that took him almost 20 years to overcome. He was unable to maintain a job, have a family, or raise a child. By mutual agreement between him and my mother, he left when I was 3 years old. My earliest memories of him are mixed with memories of my mother showing me photos and reading me articles from Time and Newsweek about the war in Vietnam. For years I honestly believed my dad had died over there in one of the grisly scenes that appeared on almost every page of the magazines.
When I was 15, I reconnected with my dad, who was still struggling with drug addiction, but who had finally settled into a job and somewhat stable life. It was a relief to see him in the flesh, but I still had so many lingering questions about the country that had left him emotionally traumatized. Without intending to, I ended up majoring in Southeast Asian History while studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was able to delve deep into the history of Vietnam, digesting not only the American period, but the French and Chinese periods as well–it was an amazing cycle of hundreds of years of foreign conquest and rebellion. I was hooked. I absolutely had to go and see the place that not only had such a rich history, but had also generated so much mystery and despair.
With the aid of a Henry Luce Foundation scholarship, I spent the spring term of 1992 at the University of Hanoi. I was overwrought with excitement for the trip. I wanted to get inside Vietnam, dive under the surface, and, maybe, if I was lucky, discover where she had hidden my father.
I spent three and a half months drinking in Vietnamese life–riding my bicycle hither and yon on the streets of Hanoi; sitting in the tiny food stalls in the 100-plus degree heat, slurping icy mung bean drinks; listening to the staccato cackle of elderly Vietnamese ladies as they discussed the cost of the betel nut; watching young kids light strings of firecrackers in the streets on Tet… . We crossed the country as a group, visiting remote villages, tombs of kings, and pristine beaches.
I never did find the young man I was looking for, but one afternoon, as we drove north from Saigon, our bus pulled over to some very old temples. They were Cham holy sites dating from the 700s AD. We took a tour of the site, had some lunch, and carried on with our journey.
One evening after I had returned to the US, over greasy Chinese food, I showed my dad all my trip photos. He stopped when he got to the Cham temples.
“Those are outside Nha Trang, aren’t they?”
Laughing, he told me this tale. “Well, a buddy and I walked off base one day. We left our guns back at the base, figured we’d go for a stroll. We walked, chatting, enjoying the sun and quiet, I don’t know how far. But we realized we’d better turn back when we got to these temples.”
A 25-year gap separated the visits, but a clump of withered old temples, dedicated to gods long forgotten, brought together a much-loved father and his daughter.
Happy Reunification Day, Vietnam!
Chúc mừng tót ngày thống nhất, Việt Nam!