VIEW FROM AFAR- Vietnamese vets share goals of our ‘Greatest Generation’

At the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, a fast-talking huckster, Doan, persuaded Adam and me that he and his nephew were the finest motorcycle tour guides in the city.

So for two days we roared around the city on the back of their motorcycles.

As we headed into oncoming traffic Doan would shout, “Don’t worry, we are immortal.” I grabbed his shirt in fear and worried if my organ donor card was current.

He took us to a local restaurant to eat dog for lunch, which tastes like bad venison. I asked if he could arrange for us to meet some retired soldiers and he promised us he could. The next day he took us to his modest apartment for tea.

“OK, now we go meet veteran.”

We walk up a narrow spiral staircase to the second floor.

A tiny old man was sitting on the floor. He looked like Yoda from Star Wars and was wearing a bright yellow sweatshirt. One eyelid was drooping-suggesting he might have had a stroke. He is 78 years old. His name is Haong Cai and he was either a lieutenant general or a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army.

Doan struggles to interpret as the general tells his story. He was born into a tribal family near the Chinese border. He recalls the Japanese occupation during World War II.

He joined the Communist Party at age 17, went to China in 1950 and received military training. He was in the Battle of Dien Ben Phu when the French colonial forces were defeated and recalls with pride serving under the Vietnamese hero, General Giap.

When Vietnam was divided, he fought in the delta area of South Vietnam and had 500 troops. He was part of the Tet Offensive.

“We were often very hungry as soldiers in those days,” he said.

The general recalls taking over an airbase in 1975 when the Saigon regime fell. Later he fought the forces of Pol Pot in Cambodia.

He is still a member of the Communist Party and emphatically says, “The party gives leadership and unity for the country.”

When I asked him about the more recent massive growth of capitalism and trade with the United States, he says, “This also is good, because now you and I can be friends and live in peace.”

His apartment is about 15 feet by 15 feet and may have had a tiny kitchen that we did not see. The bathroom is at the bottom of the spiral staircase. One wall displayed military honors and a formal picture of him in uniform. The only visible luxury was some nice stereo equipment.

His wife seemed younger with jet-black hair and remained silent during our conversation. Their only son works in Germany-we never found out what he does there or if they have grandchildren.

Doan suggests it is time for lunch. He goes to the street to hire a third motorcycle while the general changes clothes. The general comes down wearing a jacket and French beret.

The new driver has a hat with “U.S. Army” written on it. I mutter to Adam, “Does anybody think it strange that a general in the North Vietnamese Army is wearing a French beret while his driver wears a hat with ‘U.S. Army’ on it?”

Doan says flatly, “Well, lots of old men wear berets in Hanoi.”

We roar off to a local restaurant for a hearty meal. The general eats slowly but has seconds on both food and beer.

“What you and I have in common is that we are both farm boys,” I say. This gets lost in translation and there is no response from the general.

Had we met in 1968, we would have killed each other. Now we are honored guests in his home. The general-and thousands of Vietnamese his age-remind me of the World War II veterans I knew growing up in Hillsboro.

They survived the Great Depression and won the war. They came back and raised families-wanting nothing more than their kids getting a good education and everybody advancing financially. They didn’t talk much about their war experiences. These Americans are called, “The Greatest Generation.”

The Vietnamese experienced more than 40 years of war-fighting the Japanese, French, American forces and, less well known, the Cambodians and Chinese after 1975.

“We live for the future now,” a van driver told me in Hoi An. He recalled his father being imprisoned for fighting with American forces and facing discrimination in getting a job after his release.

“But now I drive a van and my sister teaches at the university. We live for the future now.”

The Vietnamese are fanatical about work, economic advancement and education for their kids. It is a country of young people-most of whom have never known war.

But there are old men and women in Vietnam like the general, who were the Vietnamese “Greatest Generation.” They also want the best for their kids and grandkids.

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