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Perhaps more than any other country of the modern era, mere mention of Vietnam evokes thoughts of war. Yet "Vietnam" is not a war, that beast having finally died more than three decades ago. With a population in excess of 80 million, Vietnam today is a rapidly changing country scrambling to find a place and voice within the international community. It is nominally Communist (the North did win the war), yet Vietnamese Communism today bears little resemblance to what leftist leaders of the 1960s envisioned. Markets are - for the most part - free, investment open to foreign entities. While there are still restrictions on certain freedoms, the country's citizens are generally left to do as they please. The rate of economic growth in Vietnam outpaces that of the country's immediate neighbors (China excluded). Ho Chi Minh City, the sprawling southern city formerly known as Saigon, is among the most rapidly developing cities in Asia. Hanoi, on the other hand, retains a bit of its languorous charm.
My trip to Vietnam occurred in 2003. Unlike other countries in the region, I have visited only once. I was surprised by the diversity of the country. In terms of religion and culture, Vietnam is much more diverse than neighboring Cambodia and Laos. The terrain, too, varied greatly from north to south. There are rugged mountains, beautiful lakes, sun-drenched beaches, thick forests, and of course (the Vietnam previously pictured in my mind) the swamps and waterways of the Mekong Delta. Life in the Delta proved to be unlike anything I'd seen before. Floating markets and waterborne taxis were suddenly common. I found Vietnam to be highly photogenic - full of vibrant color, unusual landscapes, fascinating architecture, and interesting faces.
Among my reasons for visiting included a desire to learn more about the American War. Perhaps not surprisingly, I'd never heard the war labeled in such fashion prior to my visit. As an American, our discussions involve the Vietnam War. The simple distinction in moniker reflects a difference in perspective that greatly shapes one's understanding of the conflict. I visited museums and spoke to war veterans. I toured the former DMZ with a war expert who lost his father to a wayward bomb in the 1960s. And like many tourists, I crawled through the tunnels once used by Vietcong forces to elude the Americans and South Vietnamese. I left with a belief that atrocities had been committed on both sides, that a general lack of understanding among all involved contributed to the chaos, and that the lessons of Vietnam remain largely unlearned and unexplored.
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