North Ridgeville/Sheffield Lake

North Ridgeville resident Bill Gardner, a former councilman and service director (who is currently Sheffield Lake’s grants administrator and former service director, and a member of the Lorain County Board of Health), visited Vietnam this spring for the first time since the conflict’s end in 1975.

Gardner and his daughter, Katie, a Lake Ridge Academy alumna and 2011 graduate of Rochester University, wanted to see Vietnam for Katie’s graduation trip, but also because of Bill’s curiosity about how that country has recovered, rebuilt and reinvented itself since the end of the war more than three decades ago. All the changes he found amazed him – and he believes he’s found proof of his theory the U.S. actually won the Vietnam War due to changes made long after American troops had come home.

Katie wanted “Third World” experience before applying to medical schools, and Bill’s cousin, Gay, a professor at Concordia College, offered them the opportunity to tag along (as babysitters for Gay’s two young children) while she accompanied some of her students on a trip to Vietnam. Gay’s student nurses visited hospitals and orphanages, while Bill and Katie visited museums, rode elephants and toured with the children.

“The experience was absolutely incredible,” Katie said. “It was enjoyable to go with my dad and hear about all of the changes that have occurred and contrast them with Dad’s description of what the devastation was like in 1975. It was wonderful to see how the land has been developed and to see all of the skyscraper buildings and modern architecture. I was surprised that English was spoken as a second language, and most of the people have taken classes or learned English.”

Bill, a North Ridgeville High School alumnus (“I have the lowest GPA in the NRHS Academic Hall of Fame,” he joked) and a 1971 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, served three tours of duty in Vietnam during the war. He was the pilot of one of the last, overloaded C-130 cargo planes as the last American dependents and the children of South Vietnamese citizens and Hmong tribesmen loyal to the U.S. were evacuated during “Operation Babylift” at the war’s end.

“April 30, 1975, is a date that’s etched in my memory as clearly as Nov. 22, 1963,” Bill said recently. “I was emergency actions officer (at) Clark Air Force Base when I learned that the war, as we knew it, was over. As I stepped off the plane in 2011 in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), I expected to see a lot of changes, but it was almost like an

entirely different country.

“The first thing I noticed is that it’s green again. We had defoliated the countryside quite thoroughly with Agent Orange during the war, but nature is coming back strong. The country is still distinctively Vietnamese, but to me it looked like they’ve actually kicked the communists out and have wholeheartedly embraced the capitalist

system.

“We were there during the run-up to the 2011 national elections,” Bill said of this year’s trip. “We never saw a red hammer and sickle flag in the Saigon area, and we only saw a very few of those flags as we traveled north toward Hanoi. Mostly we saw their red star national flag at polling places, and there were polling places everywhere we went.”

Whereas the “Made in China” label is found everywhere in America, the Vietnamese prefer U.S. goods.

“They love American pop culture, and they’ll pay extra to buy clothes with American company labels,” he said, adding most of Vietnam’s current population is under 30 years of age and thus don’t remember the war personally.

Bill said the United States is now Vietnam’s No. 1 trade partner, and he and his daughter saw many branch offices of U.S. and Australian businesses and banks in the larger cities they

visited.

“It occurred to me that, considering what Vietnam is like now, the U.S. really did win the war,” Bill said. “After we left, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) kicked the Khmer Rouge out of Cambodia. The U.S. had encouraged the Chinese to go in there, and then we pulled our support and the NVA defeated the Chinese Army. I never knew we had backed China’s incursion into Cambodia until this trip. The son of one of my buddies during the war told me about this. He was a former policeman in Da Nang, but now he’s a tour guide. At least in terms of ‘the domino

theory,’ the U.S. actually won the Vietnam War.”

He and Katie were treated well by the people with whom they interacted.

“The Vietnamese love Americans,” Bill said, “at least in contrast to how they perceive the Chinese. For example, they’ve renamed the famous China Beach ‘Da Nang Beach,’ and it’s still one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. They’ve even changed the name of the South China Sea to the ‘East Asian Sea.’ They really do still hate the Chinese, and they ultimately kept China from knocking down the dominoes, which is really what the U.S. wanted to accomplish by putting American troops in South Vietnam.

“All the people we met on our trip were very friendly – everyone seemed to be quite pro-American. The way the Vietnamese people – north and south – have embraced capitalism makes me feel good.”

“The climate was surprisingly nice, considering summer was beginning and I was expecting 100-plus degrees,” Katie said. “The food was mostly served in multicourse meals (approximately seven courses), and it was delicious.

“We saw a lot of rice paddies, of course, but we also saw a lot of greenhouses, in which farmers were growing cucumbers, tomatoes and other things we associate with the West.

“In addition to all the modern architecture, we saw the traditional houses on stilts and long houses (used for meetings and large gatherings) in the different ethnic villages we visited. We had a lot of those uniquely Vietnamese experiences of listening to gong music and riding elephants, and those were some of the highlights of the trip.

“It was an impressive trip, and I don’t think we’ll ever forget it.”

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