U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, right, and Vietnamese Chief of General Staff of the Army, Lt. Gen. Do Ba Ty, left, review an honor guard before their talks in Hanoi on Aug. 14, 2014. / Tran Van Minh, AP
HANOI â?? As a kid, I thought of Vietnam as the place my older brothers wanted to avoid and as the reason for the anti-war protests that rocked my hometown of Madison, Wis.
Vietnam: It scared the bejeesus out of me. Today, it fascinates me. Though the feeling apparently isn't mutual. While friendly and happy to help me with menus and directions, the Vietnamese regard me as just another gray-haired American.
They've turned the page.
But I remember it well. Nuns hustled us inside Blessed Sacrament grade school to avoid the tear gas that had drifted our way from the University of Wisconsin campus, where National Guard troops and cops clashed with demonstrators. At night, we watched from our porch as helicopters with spotlights clattered over rioters. I remember having nightmares about getting lost in the chaos downtown, separated from Mimi, my mom.
Forty-four years ago, late in August, just as summer vacation ended, a huge explosion rattled our windows in the dead of the night. Four radicals had driven a truck filled with fertilizer and fuel and detonated it next to Sterling Hall, which housed an Army math research center. They chose the early morning hours of Aug. 24, 1970, because they thought the building would be empty; instead they killed Robert Fassnacht, a graduate student working on research unrelated to the war.
The Vietnam War was the most divisive war in American history. It killed 58,000 U.S. troops, kept Lyndon Johnson from seeking a second term in the White House and haunted a generation.
Flip the pages of history to 2014. Here, on the other side of the world from Madison, is the other side of the story, the Vietnamese side. It wasn't just one bomb here, but thousands that leveled chunks of this city and others while Agent Orange denuded and polluted the countryside.
The scars are visible â?? if you know and care where to look. There's the Hanoi Hilton, the notorious prison where U.S. prisoners, including John McCain were tortured. It's tucked away on a side street, hard to find for two curious Americans. Built by the French during its colonial reign, the prison is now a museum. A high rise looms over it.
Several blocks away at the Vietnam Military History Museum, No. 28A Dien Bien Phu St., curators display U.S. military hardware â?? wreckage of downed warplanes, armored vehicles and helicopters captured from the South Vietnamese when they were overrun in 1975. The exhibit halls are nearly empty; a few knots of mostly Westerners peer at dusty displays.
The same scene plays out in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon and capital of South Vietnam. The palace of its corrupt final leaders â?? decorated in early Austin Powers with complete swinging rooftop cocktail lounge â?? is a trophy case for the Communists who defeated them.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit Vietnam since the war, peers from the balcony at an old American helicopter that sits on its pad. He graduated from West Point in 1974, too late to serve in Vietnam.
"We normally have war trophies displayed outside our bases," he tells me. "You don't often see U.S. equipment displayed outside a foreign military installation. It was jarring on some level. It also allowed you to think about the dichotomy between then and now."
The now: In meetings with Dempsey, the Vietnamese repeatedly talk about forging closer ties. Hard to find that scary.
Read the original story: Voices: For the U.S. and Vietnam, a new chapter