As our plane was descending to land at Hanoi International Airport on Jan. 17, I remembered back to my first landing in Vietnam 50 years ago. That time, the World Airlines plane made a steep descent into Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon so as to reduce its exposure to ground fire.
Looking out the window then, I saw bomb craters and other evidence of the fighting in the vicinity of the airport that had taken place during the Tet Offensive just five months earlier. This time the descent was normal, but it felt odd to be landing in a place that I had wanted to be blown off the face of the earth in 1968.
My wife, Kelly, and I enjoyed our interaction with the Vietnamese people we met in Hanoi. It is hard to believe they were bitter enemies not so long ago. One person brushed off the “American War,” as just an interruption in the long history of Vietnam.
We made the obligatory visit to the Hanoi Hilton, the old French prison where American POWs were held and brutally mistreated during the war. I was disappointed that about 90% of it had been demolished to make way for a commercial building. Seems like it should have been maintained as a memorial.
A thing that gave great offense at the facility was the propaganda claim that American prisoners had been humanely treated there. Ho Chi Minh may have been a nationalist, but he was also a brutal dictator. But, you can’t hold that against the good people living there now. The majority of the country’s population was born after the war.
We arrived in Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam, on Jan. 21. It is a wonderful city. The main attraction is the Citadel where Vietnam’s emperors lived and ruled through the 19th century and well into the 20th. Much of the Citadel was destroyed during the 1968 Tet Offensive that saw the most intense urban fighting of the Vietnam War.
The Communist forces attacked and overran Hue during a truce that had been called to celebrate the Chinese New Year. It took a month of brutal, close-in combat to dislodge them. South Vietnamese troops fought well, suffering 452 killed and 2,132 wounded. U.S. forces sustained 1,584 wounded and 216 killed in action. More than 5,000 Vietnamese civilians died, more than half of whom were executed by the Communists.
The government has restored a good deal of the damage but much more work lies ahead. You can see large areas where bullet holes were plastered over but many still remain there and elsewhere around the city. After all the mayhem, it does not seem right that a red flag with a yellow star should fly over the Citadel, but that’s just the way it is.
The Communists expected the citizens of Hue to rise up in support of the offensive, but they did not. Many citizens were traumatized by the mass executions. Maybe I read too much into it, but many of the older folk who were likely in Hue during the offensive would return a nod or smile to me on the streets. Could it be they had formed a warm spot in their hearts for Americans in those tragic days?
Jim Jones is a former Idaho attorney general and a former Idaho Supreme Court chief justice.