Maybe this is because I was a military brat, raised mostly during peacetime, mainly after the cold war was ended, but Vietnam to me has always been at least somewhat about the war Americans fought here. This was the war that I heard songs about, saw movies about, heard people talk about.
I think so many places on earth are like this for Americans--civilizations have existed in the fertile crescent for millennia, but in the emotional lives of Americans, it's still just Iraq, the place we sent American soldiers to die. That's what resonates. Bosnia is just a country that had a bloody civil war a decade ago, Lebanon is where Israel drops bombs, Rwanda is where they commit genocide, and places like Papua New Guinea, that haven't made news since the Japanese invaded in WWII, don't even really register on our radar. The great events that shape nations are what make news, but they don't constitute all or even nearly all of the existence of those nations they occur in. Still, they make up a decent proportion of our conception of places not America.
This of course is not a uniquely American phenomena--the young woman who translated for us in Turkey, while very (unnecessarily) concerned for our safety in Ankara, voiced her concern by saying, "It's like Texas out there!" Meaning, it's not safe. Now, I've only ever been to airports in Texas, and I'm sure that there are places that are not safe, but my general impression of the state is that it's not a particularly dangerous place, even if it's a bit more intimidating to outsiders than other places in America. I'm sure there are a lot of Texans out there that would be very surprised to know that an Albanian woman living in a country that borders Iraq considers Texas so treacherous. But I guess people overseas hear a lot about Texans owning guns, and so assume it can't be safe.
All of which is just to say, you can read a ton about what a place is like, and know it's history backwards and forwards, and you still will have very little actual concept of what the country is like. Knowing its history can help offer post-hoc explanations of why it is what it is, but it can never help you totally predict a place.
So what is Vietnam actually like? Well, in my experience, it's beautiful and challenging and full of stubborn but kind people. I have to say, after slogging around after dogs in the northern hills for a week, it would SUCK BALLS to fight such an ultimately pointless war here. Clearly wars suck all the time anyways (what is it good for, absolutely nothing!), but ultimately pointless wars must suck exponentially more (Good God, yall!). Fighting an ultimately pointless war in a country with this kind of weather, and this incredible feeling of remoteness probably ranks among the top miserable human experiences of all times.
Vietnam is hot and sticky in the summer. I don't mean hot like Qatar, where people at least have the good sense to sleep through the middle of the day. I mean so humid and sticky that you can't tell where the humidity ends and your own sweat begins. The upside (have you noticed that Ryan and I always find the upside?) of this is the incredibly beautiful and lush vegetation. Also, endlessly charming picture-postcard terraced rice paddies being farmed literally by the hands of women and men wearing conical hats. When you see tourist photos of places you think, clearly most of the country can't look like that. But really, much of the northern part of this country actually does look like this:
Trust me. I drove through most of it on bad roads in a full 4x4. I had lots of time to figure out what it looks like.
So, it's beautiful here. While there's definitely a somewhat intimidating socialist bureaucracy, it has run pretty smoothly for us thanks to a very capable collaborator. I've gotten quite good at ignoring the response to tense up when I see red epaulets with yellow stars, a reaction I didn't expect in myself given that I'm not exactly a big war movie buff or anything like that. As a westerner, it's quite hard to tell just how much people in such uniforms are actually responsible for getting in the way of everyday goals for people here--it might be nominally socialist, but I don't think I've ever been anywhere quite so eagerly capitalist. People's living rooms double as store fronts and everywhere seems to be selling something.
Still, it's a beautiful and cheap place. I'm sick of Pho for breakfast and miss dairy products, but other than that, Vietnam has been lovely and fascinating.
Also, there are adorable dogs: