Although it’s not very noticeable from here on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city, it’s an interesting factoid that this is one of just five communist countries remaining in the world today (Cuba, China, Laos, and North Korea being the others). The reason it’s not noticeable is because it’s a version of communism that’s been watered down in recent decades as post-war Vietnam has developed and integrated with the western world. Today there are free markets, minimal social programs, and little sense that the government plays much of a role in anything… almost the opposite of the socialist vision Carl Marx described in his famous and convincing manifesto. In the world today, Marx’s type of communism has been pretty much completely eradicated everywhere in the world by the competing ideological system of free market capitalism and democracy.
It was July of 1969 during the Cold War with the Soviet Union when the United States scored its greatest victory in its battle against the communist ideology. That’s when the Apollo 11 space mission successfully landed on the surface of the moon, and safely returned the mission’s three astronauts. In the process, the United States demonstrated to the world the technical and ideological superiority of its free market economic system and democratic political system. It took another 20 years for communism to finally crumble but through its victory in the Space Race, the United States had taken its biggest step towards defeating its rival, and it had done so without a bomb, gunshot, or even a direct confrontation with its “enemy”.
But if that period of time was one of the most proud moments in American history, the passage of time would later prove it was also one of the most embarrassing. The reason for that is because of events that unfolded here in South Vietnam during that same period in history as the US fought the same ideological enemy. Here in Vietnam, though, the primary tools involved large scale bombing campaigns and indiscriminate chemical spraying. In his famous book, the Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan pointed out the awkwardness of the US position this way:
For me, the most ironic token of that moment in history is the plaque signed by President Richard M. Nixon that Apollo 11 took to the moon. It reads, ‘We came in peace for all Mankind.’ As the United States was dropping seven and a half megatons of conventional explosives on small nations in Southeast Asia, we congratulated ourselves on our humanity. We would harm no one on a lifeless rock.
– Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot
So as we stand here at the epicenter of that irony in South Vietnam, where the majority of bombing and dioxin spraying took place, a sense of embarrassment for the events of those years feels inescapable. As we walked through the War Remnants Museum at city center Ho Chi Minh city, where the events of the Vietnam War are preserved and extensively documented, and the evidence of injustice and war crimes displayed so undeniably, we found ourselves in a long and awkward silence. It might have been because we didn’t know what to say, or perhaps we just didn’t want people to hear our accents, but whatever the reason, a sense of shame definitely played a part.
So we ended that day in a somber mood, but somehow fumbled our way back to normalcy the following day when we got out of the city and into the Mekong Delta. Parts of the delta can be a bit touristic, but the experience of paddling around the narrow estuaries, drinking snake wine, and walking through through small riverside villages is definitely one we’ll remember. But the highlight for us was reaching the very remote Tan Thanh island, where we found a community in need of our last batch of water filters from the clean water mission we committed to several months ago. Although the need on the island far exceeded the capacity of our remaining filters (44,000 people versus our 14 filters, enough for just 1500 people), the community leaders were highly appreciative, and we were pleased to have had at least a small positive impact on one community. To the donors who supported our clean water project (all of whom are readers of our blog), we relay the thanks that is rightly yours.
We’re saying goodbye to Vietnam now and leaving by bus in the morning for Cambodia… an eight hour ride that we’d happily skip if we could.