It’s the hat that drives home the absurdity of war. A simple cone hat made of palm fronds. On the way to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Saigon, we stop for a close-up view of the rice paddies. As an old farmer walks past, a woman with our group asks to take his photo. He hands her his hat and motions for her to put it on, then points to the camera. As she ties the string under her chin, he smiles broadly. Once the moment is captured on film, she takes the hat off to give it back. But the farmer shakes his head. The hat is hers to keep. It is his gift to this stranger from America, the country whose forces once sprayed Agent Orange and carpet-bombed these fields. The farmer’s simple act of kindness moves P.J. Secrist to tears. More than a souvenir, the hat becomes a symbol of forgiveness.nn
The farmer’s gift is the most memorable moment of our trip to Vietnam on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon to communist forces, an event that ended the war. Thirty years later, the Vietnam War remains a sore spot for many Americans. While memories of war are always slow to fade, the people we met in Vietnam seem to have more easily made their peace with the past.nn
“Vietnam is a country, not a war,” one Vietnamese man told us. It’s strange to think such a reminder is necessary, but for too many Americans, Vietnam remains a synonym for a pointless war that claimed 58,000 Americans. We forget that close to 3 million Vietnamese died in what that country calls “the American War.”nn
Today, Vietnam is a vibrant, modern country. There are reminders of the war like the signs seeking contributions for the Agent Orange Relief Fund, but a new generation is moving forward. With the 30th anniversary of what is officially called “the liberation of Vietnam,” the war is again front and center. Local magazines herald “The Brilliant Victory of 1975” and celebratory posters adorn the streets.nn
On our way to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Saigon (now renamed Ho Chi Minh City), our guide apologizes for bringing up the war before offering a brief history of the 30-mile network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong. “Sorry to talk about the past,” she says. She apologizes for the “very propaganda film” that we watch before entering the tunnels. The 1967 black-and-white film shows simple people taking up arms to protect their village from what the narrator calls “the crazy American devils invading their land.”nn
Afterward our guide chooses her words carefully. “People had the right to protect their land, like the Americans did from the British.” Her explanation of Agent Orange is equally understated. “Americans sprayed Agent Orange to destroy the trees,” she says. “The next generation deformed. But, let bygone be bygone. No war is good. I feel sorry for all sides in war.nn
Wars are between governments, but it’s people who pay. No one wins, not even the victors. Everyone loses. After 30 years, however, wounds can heal and citizens of countries once at war can begin to forgive each other'and themselves. That’s the message of a Vietnamese farmer’s worn cone hat, now hanging on P.J. Secrist’s wall.nn
Salt Lake City writer Mary Dickson was part of a KUER-sponsored trip to Cambodia and Vietnam to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.