“Vietnam is a country, not a war.”

I now understand that better than ever. But I must admit I was excited to visit Vietnam this November, mostly because the war, and its opposition, had re-shaped forever my young life in the 1960s.

I was moved, often to tears, by My Lai, the War Remnants Museum, the Cu Chi Tunnels and other war sites. I had the privilege of meeting former Vice President Madame Nguyen Thi Binh and other leaders of the campaign for justice for the Agent Orange victims of what the Vietnamese call the American phase of their 100-year war for independence.

But when I left the country 17 days later, I found myself most struck by the many forms of beauty of Vietnam and by the bustling energy, optimism and sense of purpose of its people as they struggle to improve their lives in one of the world’s poorest countries.

And I am still wondering where they hide the uniformed armed men that menace the populace of most countries. Although I moved in and out of at least a dozen high governmental and party buildings and visited Vietnam’s most precious tombs and temples, the armed presence was almost non-existent.

Tunneling to victory

I made an emotional visit to My Lai, site of the most famous U.S. massacre of the war. Pham Thanh Cong, director of the My Lai Museum, told me he was one of only 10 people who survived the senseless U.S. slaughter of more than 500 unarmed villagers on March 16, 1968.

He recounted how U.S. troops corralled his family in a cave and then cold-bloodedly executed his parents, grandparents and siblings. To this day he wonders whether he was spared only because his traumatized 10-year-old figure was hidden by the shadows.

A visit to the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels jolts the conscience of even the most jaded tourist, especially if guided by Mr. Binh of Delta Tours. During the war, Mr. Binh fought for the U.S. as a member of our Coast Guard in and around Saigon. Thirty years later, he curses his (and the U.S.’s) “stupidity” and now passionately, and in detail, debunks U.S. war propaganda and the Lonely Planet guidebook’s distortions to all who will listen.

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City documents in horrific detail the effects of the barbaric U.S. war strategy on the Vietnamese people. At the museum I had a chance encounter with Ms. Huynh Thi Kieu Thu, who as a teenage fighter was savagely tortured and jailed in the infamous prison on Con Dao Island for 10 years. And in private conversations I learned that almost half of the officials I had meetings with had also been jailed or tortured.

By contrast, the Cu Chi tunnels are a testament to the creativity, mass support and extraordinary determination of the Vietnamese revolutionaries. The hand-dug, 250-kilometer tunnel system provided infiltration and escape routes, and enabled the National Liberation Front to coordinate its work throughout the Saigon area.

The Vietnamese began surreptitiously digging the tunnels during the fight against the French in the late 1940s. By the 1960s their painstaking labor had created a vast three-tiered mosaic of tunnels that zigzagged from the outskirts of Saigon to the Cambodian border, even plunging into and under the Saigon River.

They contained hundreds of hidden entryways, dozens of kitchens and barracks, clothing and weapons workshops, and even emergency clinics.

The tunnels were so intricately engineered that kitchen smoke was vented far away to disguise the tunnels. Deadly booby traps, sudden drops and numerous dead ends prevented enemy troops from discovering the extent and purpose of the tunnels for decades.

The tunnels were undoubtedly the product of the labor of thousands of people. Many thousands more poured through them to launch the stunning 1968 Tet Offensive in which the NLF temporarily occupied the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

Yet even after Tet the tunnels remained a tightly held secret; amazingly it was not until the early 1970s that the U.S. discovered their existence. After many unsuccessful attempts to destroy the tunnels, the U.S. vengefully turned Cu Chi into what experts have called “the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.”

But by then it was too late: the defeated U.S. troops were already quitting the country.

Rapid growth

The U.S. war on Vietnam lives on in the continued horrors caused by the massive use of chemicals like Agent Orange (dioxin). Madame Binh told me that 3 million Vietnamese still suffer its effects. Scientists say its ghastly harm will be inherited for at least two or three more generations.

Vietnamese victims recently filed a U.S. suit against the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange. See www.vn-agentorange.org.

But the main effect of the war is found in the determined effort of Vietnamese to improve their lives. Indeed 100 years of continuous war from 1880 to 1980 left this once prosperous country in dire straits. Its per capita income of $550 is less than the poverty benchmark of $2 per day and ranks Vietnam 164th out of 208 countries.

The good news is that Vietnam has made great strides over the last 10 years, achieving one of the highest growth rates in the world. The brisk economic energy of daily life is unmistakable throughout the country, with the exception of some mountain communities.

While the Asian financial crisis of 1997 sent the rest of Southeast Asia spiraling into negative growth, Vietnam has expanded at a 7-8 percent clip. Communist Party representatives suggested this should give second thoughts to those who simplistically believe that Vietnam’s adoption of a market strategy means that it is now capitalist.

And this is no barracks style of development. Vietnam brims with beautiful French colonial buildings and houses, stylish modern structures and traditional Vietnamese architecture. The vivid, multi-colored facades of the French-influenced buildings are positively entrancing, from the majestic Hotel de Ville (now the People’s Committee) in Ho Chi Minh City and the stunning Opera House in Hanoi, to the thousands of gorgeous homes sprouting throughout the country.

Vietnam is also replete with ancient temples and tombs. Hue is the traditional capital of Vietnam and its royal sites are magnificent. The beautiful Old Town of Hoi An is so precious that the United Nations has designated it a UNESCO World Heritage site. The country also boasts world-class beaches and breathtaking trekking areas.

Thousands of art galleries displaying (and purveying) exquisite contemporary Vietnamese painting, and the delectable Vietnamese cuisine, add to the sensory delight.

No socialist model

To the tourist, Vietnam feels like a purely capitalist country swarming with hawking merchants, restaurants, hotels, drivers and tour agencies. I found it infinitely easier to use a credit card in Vietnam than in Italy.

But in fact, the development of the tourist industry is a state-planned priority. It is no accident that the standard of hotels and restaurants is extraordinary (even compared with the U.S.) and that every dinky hotel can arrange more transportation and tours than a five-star hotel in the West — and even charge it to your hotel bill.

A central committee representative told me that individual enterprises now account for about 40 percent of the economy and that both the Vietnamese and foreign capitalist sectors are growing, but that the state owns or controls the main industries and arteries.

Faced with bankruptcy and even starvation, the Vietnamese government scrapped the Soviet-style centrally planned system in 1986 and commenced “Doi Moi” (renewal). Some officials privately told me that they no longer believe there is a “socialist model” let alone a “socialist system,” only “socialist objectives.”

And even these objectives, they say, can only be achieved based on the level of development attained by Vietnam in a world dominated by capitalism. For example, in the 1990s Vietnam imposed modest entry fees starting with middle school, and limited free health care to the very poor and those who work for the state or state-owned companies.

Interestingly, I was told that one of the reasons for these fees was to raise the pay of doctors and teachers to stem their exodus into private business. Still, a cyclo driver in the tourist-infested old quarter of Hanoi logs about the same pay as a government official with a master’s degree, about $50-$75 per month.

I met numerous people, especially young women, who earned $20 per month to toil in restaurants and hotels for 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week. And income is much lower in the countryside, which is still home to the great majority of Vietnamese.

Yet Doi Moi has produced outstanding results over the past decade or more, and there is a palpable feeling of energy and optimism among the people of this beautiful country. Vietnam has greatly reduced poverty and recently won recognition for that achievement from the United Nations.

After 75 years of fighting the French, 20 years of battling the U.S., and five years of war with Pol Pot and then China, peace and development are the order of the day.

Vietnam is a (beautiful and developing) country, not (just) a war.

Bob Wing is an Oakland/Bay Area-based writer and activist who traveled the length of Vietnam in November 2005.