Nguyen Ngoc Hung is a 42-year-old North Vietnamese combat infantry veteran. He was drafted into the army in 1968 and served for four years. Like many U.S. veterans of the war, he has flashbacks and nightmares. But he is unlike them in one major respect: he does not regret a moment of his service.
Hung is in the United States for a few weeks. He was brought here by CBS, to appear on a program about American and Vietnamese veterans coming together. Morley Safer of "60 Minutes" discovered him after a long, frustrating search for an English speaker. Hung teaches English; before his military service, he studied in England and Scotland. He is a poster-perfect "enemy," with a youthful, unlined friendly face and a great enthusiasm for this country and his own. He says he is apolitical.
"Before 1968," he said, "they did not draft students. But then they had to. In my generation, it would be very unusual for anyone not to go. It was something burning in you, urging you to go."
To hear Hung describe it, the war against the United States was to Vietnamese youth what World War II was to American youth in the 1940s -- an appeal to deepest patriotism, something not to be missed.
"It was to us a continuation of the war against French colonialism. Very few people know very much about communism and socialism, it was a fight for independence."
By the time he got into it, the war was undergoing "de-Americanization," the North Vietnamese term for "Vietnamization," President Richard M. Nixon's doomed policy for "ending the war and winning the peace."
Hung said his Infantry Division 320 mainly fought South Vietnamese, and downed U.S. planes. He said he never saw an American, doesn't think he ever killed one. And was it worth it? This victory that came down to vast hordes of boat people risking pirates and drowning and the horrors of internment to get away; the hard-won freedom that ended in re-education camps. Vietnam finally belonged to its own people, but the countryside was devastated by defoliation and bombing, and miles of roads were sown with landmines.
"We never ask those questions among ourselves," he says. "It was not the first time Vietnam faced a giant enemy. China came again and again in our history. They stayed for hundreds of years. We were able to keep our identity."
He now lives with his wife and two young sons in a tiny one-room apartment in Hanoi -- housing is at a standstill in Vietnam. But like all Vietnamese veterans, he is treated with respect and honor. U.S. GIs, in Rep. Silvio Conte's memorable phrase, "came home with their heads down and their coat-collars up." They built their own war memorial.
The United States has cited our MIAs as a major obstacle to recognizing Vietnam. (North Vietnam has MIAs, too, Hung notes, 300,000 of them, but not the manpower or the money to launch jungle searches.) Recognition means above all to the Vietnamese a lifting of the embargo that has helped reduce its economy to rubble. Now the problem seems resolved. The Vietnamese have offered access to their military archives and the formation of joint search teams. The remaining stumbling block is Cambodia.
But if official recognition is still pending, reconciliation is going on between the men who fought the war that gave war such a bad name that it still haunts Pentagon strategists. Bobby Muller, executive director of the Vietnam Veterans of America, made a pilgrimage to Hanoi in 1981. He caught flak for visiting Ho Chi Minh's tomb, but he's been back twice since, and hundreds of other U.S. vets have followed him in what Muller calls "a transforming experience."
"For me it was a wrap. I dropped all my emotional luggage from those years," says Muller, who was paralyzed by his wounds. "The Vietnamese are not the enemy any more. They're people."
Other Americans go bearing prosthetic limbs or to build clinics. Operation Smile repairs harelips; Marines from Massachusetts went to deactivate some of the 100,000 mines they planted long ago. The Vietnamese receive them with open arms.
The State Department is as hard-line as ever: Vietnam gets no World Bank, International Monetary Fund or developmental aid. Travel agencies who arrange group tours for veterans are liable to $50,000 fines. Individuals can go on their own, if they can.
Hung says his country can't see enough Americans now. They have only three U.S. volunteers teaching English in Hanoi, and the Vietnamese need English if they're going to have technology. They want to convert 80,000 Russian teachers into 80,000 English teachers. Their past was America, and so is their future.