In Vietnam it’s known as the American War. It’s a war that shaped world history yet our understanding of the story is almost always told from a Western, American perspective. It’s the “Vietnam War” right?
So to meet a Vietnamese fighter pilot and hear the other side is a remarkable experience. Nguyen Van Bay is one of those pilots, a man who went from bicycle to fighter jet with not much in between. He is still welcoming guests in his home village, in the Mekong Delta, to share stories (with an interpreter) and a bottle of rice wine.
Local Vietnamese tour operators have connections with other pilots and can arrange for visitors to sit down for lunch to hear what happened, before, during and after. So far it’s been an experience desired by American war veterans, who seek a better understanding and repatriation with the people they fought against.
In 1972 pilot Hong My was the first to gun down a F-4 fighter jet. Almost 50 years later he shares cups of tea with visitors in his Hanoi Old Quarter home. Sometimes there is lunch as well. And maybe rice wine.
There’s no better history than a history told first hand and it’s not only pilots you can meet. Mass tourism brings millions of visitors to the Cu Chi Tunnels and famous museums and memorials. But there are more tunnels and more tales, as local tour operators arrange meet ups with former Vietcong military leaders.
It’s all part of discovering Vietnam from a more local and authentic perspective, often a perspective that escapes mainstream media and travel guides.