The Ugly American


Poster from "The Ugly American" movie starring Marlon Brando

Poster from “The Ugly American” movie starring Marlon Brando

In the book The Ugly American (1958), the authors Eugene Burdick and William Lederer describe Americans living in a fictional, Southeast Asian country that was a thinly disguised Vietnam.  Popularized by a movie starring Marlon Brando, the book’s title came to symbolize the view of Americans as often seen from abroad—arrogant, loud and ostentatious.  The title actually alludes to an American government worker who, while physically unattractive, lives and works closely with Southeast Asians in improving their daily lives by bringing small scale, innovative technology into their local villages (a bicycle-powered water pump, improved chicken coops, etc).  The fictional hero of the book was actually a real person, Homer Atkins, who worked in Vietnam with the International Cooperation Agency—now the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)— in the 1950s.  Our efforts of civilian aid to Vietnam then were obviously overwhelmed by the ensuing military conflict of the Vietnam War of the sixties and seventies, leaving scars and tragic memories still felt by many Americans to this day.  Arriving at Hanoi International Airport recently I was curious, if not somewhat apprehensive, as to how an “ugly American” might be met.  The following describes my own personal experience and thoughts about going forward in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

Since I did not participate in the war some four decades ago, my own images and thoughts about Vietnam came from TV news broadcasts, movies and endless discussions with my friends and fellow students of the time—Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, “body counts,” assassinations, anti-war protests, “make love, not war,” agent orange, sit-ins, self-emolliating monks—all became part of the era of the “Vietnam war generation.”  As to current thinking of the U.S. in Vietnam, my only clue had been the rather formal but not unreasonable visa application process.  Done online several weeks earlier, I was sent a letter in which my name appeared on a list of twenty or so “applicants” who would be allowed entry beginning on the date I had indicated for up to thirty days.  I had opted to use “expedited” visa service, and on arrival was met at immigration by a young agent who quickly shepherded me through the on-arrival application process.  We by-passed most of the lines and was even allowed to exit briefly to get the needed $45 in cash from an ATM to pay for the visa.  My fellow passengers congratulated me for having hired a “lawyer” to get through the bureaucracy they were still slowly moving through. Other than that, my first encounter suggested Vietnam was open for business with little or no more concern about my nationality than any other country I had visited.

This proved to be the case throughout my time in Vietnam.  The people of Vietnam in general were eager to interact with an obvious foreigner—as a tall, white Anglo with a cowboy hat, I stood out among the Vietnamese populace.  While no doubt there was a bit of personal commercial interest from the ever-present rickshaw drivers, market vendors and street salesmen, the average Vietnamese seemed genuinely happy to interact with a foreigner, providing help and assistance even when not requested.  As an example, my old Mac laptop had died somewhere in Turkey.  The Hanoi hotel manager had the bellboy drive me on his scooter to a computer repair shop and, later, when it was clear my old laptop was clearly DOA, helped me find a new replacement.  Somehow I acquired “special” status in the hotel’s eyes (I had also booked several tours through their office), and I found myself being given upgraded hotel rooms and extra “perks” throughout Vietnam, even as I traveled to SaPa and Halong Bay in the north and south to Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City.


While in Hanoi I was invited by the parents of my German/Vietnamese married couple for a special birthday dinner at their home in a nearby suburb.  I knew from their daughter that her father had been part of the Viet Cong who had fought in South Vietnam and watched friends die at the hands of U.S. soldiers, including one run over by a tank as they lay, hiding in the mud, unable to avoid the vehicle.  No mention of that or any other exploit from years past occurred during the several hours I spent with them.  We drank beer, ate a home-cooked meal prepared by the father and had cake to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  We spoke only of our children, their plans for retirement, fishing in the local lake, education of their youngest daughter and other matters of greater importance than the past.


Hmong native guide in Sa Pa, Vietnam

Hmong native guide in Sa Pa, Vietnam

In SaPa near the border with China, my Hmong hill tribe guide happily showed our mixed tourist group (Canadians, Australians, Europeans and a few Americans) her hillside village, their special rice wine, even how to blow a leaf whistle to “attract” a beautiful local girl as a “wife” at their “wife market” in town.  On a more serious note she spoke of her peoples’ need for more education, the lucky ones finishing their local schools at fifteen before marrying and raising children. While free secondary and even advanced education were available in the larger cities, there were no funds for supporting her or her growing, young family if she attended classes elsewhere.  Nonetheless she was optimistic, looking forward and past the obvious hardships she faced in this remote part of Vietnam. 


My guide in Halong Bay to the east also spoke of his country’s future as we headed to one of the more mystical and magical parts of Vietnam.  He volunteered that his father had served with the Viet Cong during the war, but that was in the past and now everyone was looking at a new world and new opportunities.  They now faced the challenges to create a more democratic government and further open the country to investments from abroad.  Their focus had to be on growing their economy while protecting such world heritage water ways as their Halong Bay.


When I arrived in Da Nang my “Easy Rider” guide (his company so named by the Peter Fonda 60s movie complete with motorcycle) asked me if I was a veteran (no).  He had served in the South Vietnam army, fighting alongside our U.S. forces in the 60s.  He spoke of veterans who were now returning, often showing great emotion as they toured this city and remembered the images of one of the largest military bases in Asia at the time.  Today there are only small vestiges of that military presence: a few Quonset huts set beside new hotels and resorts; the old hospital, recently renovated and expanded.  He too spoke of the future and the need to bring more tourism and commerce to this region.  He hoped that the U.S. would recognize the opportunities and more Americans would come and invest in Vietnam.  Already Germans and Australians were joining Japan, Korea and other Asian countries in building hotels, golf resorts and other businesses in the South.


To be sure official Vietnam has not forgotten the war.  Both in Hanoi at the Army Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, official presentations underscored the view as seen by the Vietnamese government.  In Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum they presented an even more biased and one-sided view of the war, basically a propaganda mill for the government and their perception of the war—“Freedom fighters” of the north pitted against the “invaders” first from France and later the U.S. and the war atrocities committed by U.S. troops.  The war was anything but simplistic as good versus evil; it was much more nuanced and complex than that, with much on both sides to be sorry for and to be proud of. 

Army Museum Sculpture Hanoi

Army Museum Sculpture Hanoi

I felt uneasy looking at the large metal sculpture made up from pieces of U.S. war planes blown out of the sky by Russian-provided missiles, reminding me of the era where the two super powers fought a larger proxy war, as the real civil/military war raged on.  Pictures of victims from use of Agent Orange caused some foreign visitors to gasp in outrage—their Vietnamese guide hurriedly explaining, “No, no, that was then.  It was a long time ago.  This is not the case today…”  Even the museum guides see a need to move on.  I saw little in value to visiting the museums other than to note again what I saw there was not reflected in what I felt and saw in speaking and interacting with the Vietnamese in general.


It has been four decades since the end of the Vietnam War.  I believe that Americans are today more traumatized and scarred by the memories of that era then the Vietnamese whose land was physically assaulted by the ravages of that tragic conflict.  Perhaps, it is time to set those memories aside and, like the Vietnamese themselves, put the past to rest and look towards a better future, with a more educated and flourishing Vietnam.  Certainly the private sector has an opportunity to gain from investments in this vibrant and beautiful country.  Perhaps, as well, it is time for the U.S. government and USAID to bring another group of  “Ugly Americans” to Vietnam and help them in that process.—Paul Maxwell

Odds and Ends:


My "ride" in Vietnam

My “ride” in Vietnam

I’ve been traveling almost exactly seven months since I left El Paso / Santa Teresa.  Since then I’ve:

Traveled more than 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles) by air

More than 17,000 Kilometers (10,200 miles) by car

More than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) by ferry

About 700 kilometers (350 miles) by train

Walked an estimated six kilometers per day or over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles); ran only about 48 km (30 miles) what I used to run in a week back in my 40’s

Visited three continents

Visited sixteen countries

Visited/lived in 53 cities

Visited more than 42 museums

Visited more than 56 cathedrals, mosques, temples, and castles

Visited more than a dozen “caves” or wineries

Swam in seven different seas and oceans

Spoken at least a few words in thirteen different languages (beer, bier, biera being among my favorites)

Almost learned a new language (Italian)—still a work in progress

Learned to cook some great Italian pastas and desserts

Drunk numerous bottles of wine and beer (too numerous to count), plus an assortment of other adult beverages, including snake wine

Made over a hundred new friends

Acquired an unlimited number of new, wonderful memories and

hundreds of new stories and “adventures” with which to bore my children, family and friends.

Spent far more than I should have but as the old American Express commercial said: “Value—Priceless”




4 thoughts on “The Ugly American

  1. I enjoy your travel posts very much. Thank you for sharing your journeys. Let us know what’s next.
    Happy Trails – Marie L

  2. The war was when we stopped believing our federal government. It started a trend. Now we don’t believe any government and our government(s) don’t trust us either.

  3. Paul,

    I read with interest your blog, but this one was particularly of interest. Unlike you, I spent a year and a half in Vietnam, compliments the US Army. My world view changed 180-degrees because of that experience.

    I found the people to be warm and they shard much of the same desires as Americans…they wanted a better future for their children than they had, sought after freedom from government tyranny and control over their lives, etc. I learned that living under a grass roof was not “third world” when it was the only dry place during monsoon season. The girl who washed my cloths spoke 4 languages fluently and majored in mathematics at Saigon University until hostilities forced her to go home.

    It sounds like your experience was wonderful. I long for an opportunity to return. Thanks for sharing.

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