Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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For purposes of readability, the Vietnamese names and phrases are spelled phonetically.
Twenty-five years ago, my father was in South Vietnam for several months. He’d already retired from the Marine Corps by then, having served for twenty-seven years, and had started a second career in the ordnance (that is, weapons) division at Honeywell — or, as my father always referred to the company, “Honeypot,” because they kept thousands of Americans employed and safely ensconced behind white picket fences and two-car garages. At the time, Honeywell was a major supplier of antipersonnel weapons to the United States military, and had just begun work on the “automated battlefield,” a coordinated array of sensors and antipersonnel devices that could keep a given area free of enemy forces. But there were two problems with the automated battlefield: The enemy could (and did) go underground. And the sensor equipment couldn’t always distinguish soldiers from civilians, water buffaloes, large dogs, children — it simply fired at them all.
My dad traveled to Vietnam as a technical advisor to assist in the installation of automated battlefields. It helped put Spaghetti-Os on the table for us five kids and paid for the Olds Delta 88, the first new car our family ever owned.
It was a great car, sleek and powerful, and I liked Spaghetti-Os.
My dad didn’t say much about his trip to Vietnam. He’d seen a lot of war by then, and I think he was getting tired of it. He was, however, absolutely sure of the moral purity of America’s intervention, and convinced that the conflict amounted to a communist invasion, funded by China and the Soviet Union, of capitalist (and largely Catholic) South Vietnam. He believed that all of Southeast Asia would fall “like dominoes” if we “lost Vietnam.” He said the war wouldn’t last much longer, because America had the best fighting force in the world.
November 9, 1994
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Riding in a taxi through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City this afternoon, I would have thought that the French were the final victors of Vietnam’s many wars. Their architecture is evident everywhere: ornate balconies, whitewashed façades, large windows. But the buildings’ tarnished, Old World elegance is deteriorating; the Vietnamese do not have the money for needed renovations.
Elizabeth and I shared the cab with Bob, a young businessman from England who had come to Vietnam by way of the predacious markets of Hong Kong to sniff out business opportunities. As we rode from the airport into the center of the city, past Reunification Hall and the War Crimes Museum, Bob nearly panted with delight over the French architecture and the rich investment opportunities he saw at every corner, in each building and sidewalk stall. “Oh my God,” he whispered. “Look at those balustrades, those balconies, those windows.” Fairly shuddering with free-market and architectural orgasms, Bob hardly noticed the dense throngs of people and mopeds and bicycle-powered cabs, called cyclos. For him, Vietnam was a budding flower to be watered, fertilized, and lustily plucked.
The cabby dropped Bob at the Asia Hotel, an upscale establishment with white-gloved doormen. (The elimination of classes under socialism apparently did not apply to foreign businessmen with hard currency.) We didn’t see him again.
We are staying at the Dong Kai, a government-run hotel — cheaper, but still somewhat overpriced at twenty-four dollars a night. It was probably clean and elegant at one point, but is now crying out for fresh paint and a thorough sweeping of cobwebs. In the lobby we saw an HIV/AIDS-education poster showing an ominous-looking cartoon needle. (The government has just begun a massive information campaign.)
When we checked in, the desk clerk said all the cheapest rooms were full. We didn’t believe her, but it was late, and we had no desire to go wandering aimlessly, looking for an alternative. So we got a suite: two vast rooms, with a stuffed chair that keeps falling over and an aging air conditioner that huffs and wheezes. The cockroaches are astoundingly large; we don’t step on them for fear of the horrible sound they would make.
Ho Chi Minh City
One of the more shocking things about Vietnam is the number of people with serious war-related injuries: a woman with her face half burned away, men without legs, children with significant birth defects due to fetal exposure to Agent Orange, which remained in the food chain long after the fighting had stopped. Yesterday I counted seven people. Today I counted four more.
In the West, a good number of these disfigurements could easily be repaired, or at least improved, with reconstructive surgery. But we are not in the West.
We spent most of the day finding a cheaper hotel (about $9.50 a night) and hanging out with Shannon and Matthew, a couple from Australia and New Zealand whom we met yesterday. They are both recovering alcoholics, and we compared personal histories and gossip about the recovery community. Matthew is an Aborigine; his new sobriety gives him the wide-eyed, openly curious attitude of someone who has just begun to see the world. Shannon, on the other hand, is cynical and unfazed by anything she sees. She is a psychologist, which I find slightly disturbing given her excessively jaded attitude.
It’s startling how strong the dollar is against the Vietnamese dong. A year ago a dollar netted seventy-five hundred dong; now it fetches almost eleven thousand. Changing money, we offer one piece of green paper and get a thick stack of notes in return. Most Vietnamese would rather be paid in dollars because they can get an even better rate on the black market.
The cyclo we took today had this bumper sticker on the back of the seat: America’s Army — Be All That You Can Be.
Whenever I look at the Vietnamese landscape and cannot see, for the moment, the memories of war that linger there, all I see is a sumptuous, enchanting land. Imagining the suffering experienced there makes it only more beautiful, not less.
Whenever I look at the Vietnamese landscape and cannot see, for the moment, the memories of war that linger there, all I see is a sumptuous, enchanting land. Imagining the suffering experienced there makes it only more beautiful, not less.
Ho Chi Minh City
Today’s count: four war-wounded. I can include only those with visible lesions; no doubt there are many more injuries hidden below the surface.
This morning I saw young boys wearing clean white shirts and red kerchiefs around their necks strolling the streets with grim purpose. I asked San, our new Vietnamese acquaintance, who they were.
“They are . . . like . . .”
“Like a Young Socialist League?” I said.
“Yes, something like that.”
“How come you’re not a member?”
“I used to be. But I grew older.”
The white-shirted young men often carry books and rarely smile. They swear some kind of loyalty oath, San told me, to socialism and the Communist Party. I wonder what, if anything, makes them laugh. I wonder how they get their shirts so white.
All the other kids in the street here (shouldn’t they be in school?) hawk anything they can get money for: Chiclets, cigarettes, maps of the city, postcards. They take empty Coke and Pepsi cans, cut them into strips, and shape the metal into toy helicopters and jets. One young girl today was selling splintered toothpicks: ten for five hundred dong — about a nickel.
Discarded military goods are hot: some enterprising vendors sell Zippo lighters, lost years ago by American GIs. I can’t help but wonder if the original owners are still alive. The lighters all bear brave and sometimes obscene inscriptions; arriving in Saigon for the beginning of their tour of duty, soldiers would routinely buy a Zippo and scratch on it the motto they wanted to live by. One today said: “When I fire my rifle, I feel nothing but recoil.”
The War Crimes Museum was originally called the Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes. Not wanting to offend American and Chinese tourists, the Vietnamese have dropped the modifiers. It hardly matters. The museum contains hundreds of enlarged photographs of American soldiers torturing, shooting, stabbing, mauling, and massacring Vietnamese. The pictures are graphic and horrifying, and, for an American, damning. Here: a photo of a GI casually puffing on a cigarette as he disembowels a young Vietnamese man. Here: hundreds of suspected Viet Cong crammed into Thieu’s infamous tiger cages, constructed so that captives could neither stand nor sit. Here: a Vietnamese man, bound at the wrists and ankles, being dragged behind a U.S. tank. Here: a Vietnamese suspected of communist affiliation being thrown, still alive, from an army helicopter. Here: a wall-sized photograph of the bodies piled high at My Lai. The pictures turned my stomach and caused bile to rise in my throat.
Accompanying the photographs are grim numbers: of war dead, of wounded, of orphans and widows, of those missing in action, of acres deforested by Agent Orange. The bottom line is simple: the U.S. dropped more explosives on North Vietnam than were dropped in all other U.S. wars combined; every bridge in the north was destroyed, and some were rebuilt and destroyed again many times over; four-fifths of northern villages were bombed.
I didn’t cry until the end. There, inside a small glass frame, were eight U.S. service medals, one of them a Purple Heart. And next to them, inscribed on a piece of plastic, were the words one Vietnam vet left behind, along with the medals he no longer wanted:
To the people of a United Vietnam:
I was wrong.
I am very sorry.
And below these words were the man’s name, rank, and dates of service.
To be sure, the War Crimes Museum offers only one myopic perspective, and has a political purpose. There is no mention of American soldiers tortured at the Hanoi Hilton, no account of the extensive reeducation camps that dotted South Vietnam. When Saigon fell, many were executed; others were made homeless, denied work permits, or forced to work the dirtiest, most degrading jobs. Viet Cong booby traps were especially vicious; they also were torturers. Although the War Crimes Museum doesn’t even tip its hat to objectivity, it is not a lie; it is merely incomplete.
Around Ho Chi Minh City
Today, eight war-wounded.
Caodaism is a uniquely Vietnamese religion; it was born here, and its remaining two million adherents live here, mainly in the south. The largest Cao Dai temple, about three hours from Ho Chi Minh City, is a brightly colored masterpiece that visitors either love or hate.
Caodaism was founded in the 1920s by a Vietnamese civil servant named Ngo Minh Chieu. According to Cao Dai belief, Ngo received messages from God in which the essential framework of the religion was revealed. Ngo brought together teachings from Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Laotzu, Confucius, and other great religious and philosophical figures to form Caodaism. It is, therefore, a universalist religion that attempts to combine the “best of the best.” Caodais hold séances to speak with messengers from the spirit world, among them Joan of Arc, Descartes, Shakespeare, and Victor Hugo.
The popularity of Caodaism in Vietnam has waned in recent years. Caodais were often caught in the crossfire of Vietnam’s history, persecuted by both the South Vietnamese government (Thieu, a Catholic, had no patience for Buddhists or other heretics) and the North Vietnamese (when the country was reunified, four Cao Dai leaders were executed, and large tracts of Cao Dai land were confiscated).
We got to the temple in time for noon prayers. The temple complex rests on a dry, flat, dusty plain near the Cambodian border. It is wildly colorful and ornate, with many tall spires and balconies; the colors — red, yellow, green, blue, pink, and orange — blend and swirl together like a psychedelic vision. The inside is even more vivid. Statues of Cao Dai saints gaze from the back of the room, and suspended from the ceiling is a large globe and an ominous painted eye: the representation of Cao Dai, God. There are plush, thronelike seats for the priests. The prayer area is a bare marbled floor.
At noon the worshipers began filing in, chanting and holding their palms together in prayer. They wore robes of different colors, each hue representing a position in the Cao Dai hierarchy. We viewed the service from a balcony. I do not know what psalms or entreaties the Caodais offered to their God, but the sight and sound of the worship were clean and soothing.
Many other tourists wandered about in shorts and tank tops (Caodaism requires covered arms and shoulders), snapping pictures, giggling, and chatting during the prayers. I felt ashamed to be one of them, treating religious practice as a spectator sport. Afterward, Shannon, the cynical world traveler, called the temple design “atrocious.” “When you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all,” she muttered, eager to get back in the car.
I am afraid that, in time, Caodaism will die out, and no one but its few remaining followers will care. It is already in decline; young people are more interested in “getting ahead” than in carrying on tradition, and their parents are reluctant to associate with an organization that might invite trouble from the continually shifting powers that be. The world will not lose a sustaining religious force if Caodaism disappears — most people don’t even know it exists. But Vietnam has already lost too much that is indigenous, that is uniquely Vietnamese.
A half-hour from the Cao Dai temple is the tunnel network of the Cu Chi District. Dug by hand with small shovels and baskets to carry away the soil, the tunnels protected resistance fighters and villagers from the awesome firepower of Vietnam’s sundry invaders. At the height of its expansion, the tunnel network ran all the way from the Cambodian border to the center of Saigon, even snaking below U.S. military bases, and could hold ten thousand people. The Americans knew about the tunnels, but could never adequately map the system. The tunnels were impassable to bulky Western bodies, and every entrance was hidden, booby-trapped, and guarded by both men and dogs. The best the Americans could do when they found an opening was to drop a grenade inside, perhaps killing a few people or dogs and closing off several yards of tunnel. The Viet Cong either rebuilt the collapsed tunnel or came up from the ground somewhere else nearby.
The guides on our tour of the underground were ex-Viet Cong who had lived in the tunnels during the war: they knew the entire maze intimately. Though still wearing the green fatigues of soldiers, they seemed to bear no animosity toward us, their former enemies. Like everyone else here, they wanted to leave the various wars behind. They were justifiably proud of what they had accomplished — but there was something slightly manic in the relish with which they recounted their victories. I found myself wondering whether the years underground, or the fighting, or both, had loosened their psychological moorings.
A jittery, garbled newsreel introduced us to the tunnels. The sound was unintelligible, but the picture held up: smiling men and women digging the tunnels, fighting off aggressors, marching joyously toward victory under the protective banner of socialism. Blatant propaganda. In real life, people don’t beam when they’re shoveling dirt.
We watched the newsreel in a small museum. There were photographs of the tunnels under construction and in use, and a large map of the entire tunnel network with little lights to mark the pathways. The lights, to the Vietnamese, were high-tech. By Western standards, it looked like an eighth-grade science project.
Once at the site, we were shown underground meeting rooms, a mess hall, and a hospital, which was gruesome: a bed in the middle of a cave and a glass cabinet containing a handful of aging, rusty instruments. Then we went down into the tunnels.
We only had to crawl about fifty yards through a stretch of tunnel that had been widened so Westerners could fit through, but once down there — without lights or any sense of direction, breathing damp, musty air and scraping against the walls — I began to panic, as though I were trapped. I couldn’t catch a full breath, my heart raced, and I broke into a sweat. When the tunnel narrowed, I crawled faster and faster, desperate for fresh, clean air.
Once we were out, our guide showed us some of the booby traps the Viet Cong had constructed to kill or maim Americans searching for tunnel entrances. One was a brick with long spikes driven through it, which was set in a small hole and covered with leaves and grass. When an American soldier stepped in the hole, the spikes would penetrate his feet. Hearing his screams, his buddies would rush over to assist him, only to be picked off by Viet Cong snipers in the trees. If the soldiers somehow managed to reach the wounded man and attempted to pull him from the spikes, a mine below the brick would explode, killing them all.
As he told the story, our guide chortled, no doubt pleased with the ingenuity of the device. I found his humor unnerving and obscene. He was talking about the lives of eighteen- and nineteen-year-old boys shipped to an alien land and made to carry out a disastrous military mission. Not entirely innocent, they were also not entirely guilty.
When the tour was over, we sat under a thatched-roof shelter, where our guide continued spinning tales and another man offered us bottles of Coca-Cola at inflated prices. At one point our guide laughed and said, “We could always tell when the Americans were coming.”
“How?” we asked.
“It was easy,” he said. “We could hear them, we could smell them. They were always lighting cigarettes, playing radios, crashing through the bushes, talking to each other, laughing. They were always so big and loud.”
Around Ho Chi Minh City
Today, nine war-wounded.
Matthew and I rented motorcycles for the day to explore Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding countryside. We had no helmets, no insurance, and no international driver’s licenses, but it didn’t matter to the owner, who just wanted the cash: if we wrecked his aging bikes, we’d be responsible. What the hell. We just wanted to take off without any idea of where we were going or where we’d end up.
The streets of the city are choked with bicycles, mopeds, small motorcycles, and an occasional car. The traffic is shoulder to shoulder, and there are no stop signs. To get across a major intersection, especially those where five or six avenues converge, you have to inch along, weaving around pedestrians and other riders. No one wears a helmet, and cyclists are constantly bumping against each other. Many of the motorcycles are old and break down often, creating more traffic chaos.
We rode down to the river, through narrow alleyways, off the usual tourist paths. Each neighborhood we came to seemed poorer and dirtier than the last. Matthew picked up a young Vietnamese hitchhiker, and she took us to a karaoke bar. We drank Pepsis, and she sat next to Matthew, telling him how handsome he was and rubbing her hand up and down his thigh. He grew red and flustered, and it finally dawned on us that the bar was a brothel. We were saddened — the woman was so young and desperate — and nervous about a possible run-in with the police, so we left, but not before an older woman grabbed Matthew and asked repeatedly as he backed out the door, “You want her?”
By afternoon we were about fifty kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City, riding a potholed highway past occasional houses, cycle-repair huts, and fruit-and-vegetable stands. It was hot and exceedingly dusty: taking a hint from the Vietnamese riders, we wore kerchiefs over our mouths. We had only a vague sense of where we were; our maps were marginally helpful. Off in the distance, we spotted a large statue looming by the side of the road. We rode over for a closer look.
There were actually two statues standing at the end of a huge concrete field that seemed to be under construction. Weeds grew up between the squares of concrete, and the whole place seemed bathed in a somber gray. We never did find out whom the statues represented; one was male, the other female, and they towered about fifty feet into the air.
To one side, in an open, weedy field, dry and dusty, about twenty women, all wearing the traditional Vietnamese “pajamas” and conical hats, worked in a line. They were passing flat concrete slabs hand to hand from one pile to another about one hundred meters away. As we approached they began giggling and laughing. Using hand gestures, we asked to take their picture, and they all smiled and nodded. After a few photos, I began to feel awkward. Here we were, clicking away, while these women, ranging in age perhaps from eighteen to sixty, lifted stone in the hot sun. It seemed wrong, so I gave my camera to Matthew, took a place at the head of the line, and began helping. The women were stunned at first, but before long broke into laughter and shouts of “Cam un! Cam un!” (“Thank you! Thank you!”)
I took the job of lifting the slabs from the first pile, because I knew that the lifting was the hardest task. The slabs were heavy and filthy, and after just a few minutes my back felt the strain, but I didn’t care, because since I’d joined them the women seemed actually to be enjoying themselves.
Then the nature of the slabs sank in: they were headstones. For graves. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
Each was chiseled with the name of a dead soldier, his or her dates of birth and death, and the five-pointed star that is the symbol of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Three at a time I lifted them and passed them down the line. Some of the dates of death were fairly recent: 1980, 1981 — wars with Cambodia and China. Some of the dead were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old. Three at a time, lift, and pass down the line.
My feelings were jumbled: overwhelming sadness for so many dead so young; and exhilaration from working with these women, who continued to seem grateful for the help. I was awed by their strength and dedication, many of them half my size, some twice my age. My back ached, sweat stung my eyes, and my hands grew thick with grime. Three at a time, lift, and pass down the line.
After a while we all grew silent, lulled by the monotony of the work. Matthew had joined the line by then, about halfway down. To break the quiet I began singing the silliest songs I could remember: “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” “The Hokey Pokey,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The women giggled again, then roared with laughter. Matthew soon wanted to leave. But I had become consumed with the notion of seeing the job through to its conclusion, all the headstones moved to the second pile. Irrationally, I felt that it would constitute an act of reparation, as though lifting the slabs would somehow undo centuries of damage; as though helping a handful of women would somehow resurrect the dead, rebuild the nation. It was a ridiculous, arrogant notion, but I could not shake it. So I continued working, long after I had grown sore, ignoring Matthew’s impatience. Three at a time, lift, and pass down the line.
Only after an hour — and not before many waves and tam biets (goodbyes) were exchanged — did we climb on our motorcycles and head back to Ho Chi Minh City.
Mekong Delta, Southern Vietnam
Vietnamese coffee packs a wallop, and I am becoming a serious addict. Black as ink and rich like espresso, it drips through a tin sieve into a small glass and is usually thickened with condensed milk. When you order coffee, you are given a glass of slightly sweet tea as well, to serve as a chaser between sips of mud.
I love drinking this coffee in the morning. I wake at around 5:30 and slip quietly into the street, where it is still dark but tinged with the faint glow of the coming dawn. Vietnam wakes early, following agricultural rhythms even in the city: by the time I am up and out, men and women and children are carrying goods to and fro tied to bamboo poles balanced over the shoulder; restaurants are simmering large pots of pho, the noodle soup that the Vietnamese have for breakfast; cyclos laden with bricks, concrete, straw, vegetables, and Coca-Cola are slowly rolling down side streets; and the red-kerchiefed young socialists are making their grim advance against the dawn. I sit drinking coffee in a restaurant, often little more than low folding chairs and small tables on a gritty sidewalk. The women who serve the coffee always smile. One of them keeps telling me that she has no husband, that no one should be alone. I smile, nod, and sip my coffee, loving this time of day and watching Vietnam come alive.
Elizabeth and I have decided to take a three-day, two-night tour of the Mekong Delta. Although both of us are leery of anything remotely touristy, anything that might filter our experience, the Mekong’s hundreds of channels and tributaries are difficult to navigate on one’s own. And the price is cheap: thirty dollars each, which includes lodging, transportation, and guide. All we have to buy is our food.
We are traveling with a group of twenty French, German, Swiss, and Belgian backpackers. There is only one other American in the group, a businesswoman from Washington, D.C., who decided, merely out of curiosity, that she wanted to explore Vietnam on her own. (She would turn out to be the only American we met in Vietnam.)
Today we spent hours in a van, heading south. On the way, we made a number of stops: a cottage industry where incense is made by hand; a gorgeous Buddhist temple where small children ran about without diapers and their parents begged us to take their pictures; a town known for its brilliant cultivated flowers, which grow rapidly in the humid heat. Already I do not like the feeling of being in a tour group. We stop somewhere, disembark, and cluster around our guide, who “explains all” while local people look on. We are a gaggle of tall, pink things.
Few Americans are visiting Vietnam, and of those fewer yet make it out of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. We are something of an oddity among travelers, and being such a visible object of curiosity can be exhausting because people always want to talk. (“Talk” is a loose description: our interchanges consist of broad gestures, drawn pictures, a word or two in Vietnamese or English, or perhaps a sentence from my small phrase book.) This morning I talked for almost an hour with a fifty-five-year-old farmer from Chau Doc. His children understood English but he did not; regardless, we learned a lot about each other by making crude line drawings on sheets of paper and the backs of envelopes. He was a warm, friendly man, and we swapped cigarettes and shared tea and coffee. It was one of those moments when I wish I knew Vietnamese perfectly; I wanted to find out much more about him, about his life and history.
There seem to be more beggars in the Mekong than in Ho Chi Minh City. Most are small children, who are usually very dirty, wear torn clothes, and seem to be on their own. Sometimes they are ruthless — crying, pleading, yelling — but for the most part they quietly and listlessly drift from one Westerner to another, holding out a hand or a tin cup. Other times they can be found in restaurants, asking for leftover food or empty pop and beer cans, which they can sell for money.
This morning we climbed a mountain overlooking a broad valley lush with rice paddies. We could see the Cambodian border five miles in the distance. The mountaintop was the site of a colorful but peeling Buddhist monastery. From it, we looked out on an area where much blood was spilled in the most recent Vietnamese-Cambodian conflict: the war against Pol Pot’s regime. It’s usually easy to visualize scenes of warfare in Vietnam, but from this monastery it was difficult: the land was so green, so tranquil, so ancient. We could see the tiny dots of farmers moving across the fields, planting and transplanting rice seedlings. Whenever I look at the Vietnamese landscape and cannot see, for the moment, the memories of war that linger there, all I see is a sumptuous, enchanting land. Imagining the suffering experienced there makes it only more beautiful, not less.
It is emotionally wrenching to be here, to view the catastrophic effects of centuries of warfare, to tally the number of amputees and burn victims, to see the crushing poverty, to feel the lifeless soil underfoot. The Mekong Delta was somewhat less brutalized by conventional warfare than other areas, but the guerrilla fighting here was continual. American boats patrolled the river, and the Viet Cong farmed by day, mounting disabling attacks at night.
The delta may be more fertile than other regions of Vietnam, but still nothing is wasted. In a local market today, we saw every part of the snake being used. Venom is milked for serum; the flesh is cooked; organs are dried in the sun and sold to the Chinese, who use them in traditional medicines; skins are soaked, cleaned, and stretched for belts, shoes, and hats. In addition, whole snakes are killed and put into large jars with herbs, vegetables, and strong whiskey — the resultant brew is believed to have curative properties, including restoring an individual’s libido.
As we strolled through the market, a man in his thirties took a large python from a crate and, without warning, placed it in my hands. Knowing it wasn’t venomous, I wasn’t frightened, but it was surprisingly strong: I wrestled with it as it tried to wrap itself around my neck. The man teased me, and soon a small crowd gathered to giggle at my pitiful attempts to best the reptile.
In the hushed backwaters of the Mekong, drifting along in a small boat, I sat next to our guide, Tan, and asked him about his life and experiences, both before “liberation” and afterward. He spoke of the blatant corruption of the Diem and Thieu regimes, which ruled Vietnam south of the DMZ with an infamous disdain for human rights — but he had still fought in their army. He said that early in the war Americans were generally respectful of the Vietnamese, but, as the conflict dragged on, they began to take out their frustration and rage on anyone with yellow skin. Massacres like My Lai were burned into Vietnamese consciousness, and resistance to the American presence swelled. The combination of government perversity in the south and the increasingly rapacious American armed forces only increased the ranks of the Viet Cong. “After a while,” Tan said in his soft voice, “even I, a Vietnamese, couldn’t tell the difference between a Viet Cong and a simple farmer anymore.” By that time, around 1968 and 1969, “we had already lost the war” — enemies were no longer distinguishable from friends.
Tan’s years in a reeducation camp were brutal, and he was reluctant to talk about them. His account came out only in pieces — a sentence here and there, offered minutes or hours apart. I learned when to ask, and when not to press.
The labor, he said, was arduous, the political indoctrination tedious, and the separation from family painful. But perhaps most cruel was the requirement that each prisoner write out his or her entire life story, from early childhood through the time of imprisonment, and recount in exhaustive detail each “crime against the people,” no matter how trifling. Their captors wanted to hear not just about torture and rape and large-scale plunder, but about each pilfered loaf of bread, each slight of a peasant, each stolen nap, each muttered disapproval of socialism. Every prisoner then had to read his or her autobiography in front of the entire camp. In a culture where maintaining face is considered a virtue, it was unimaginably degrading.
One of the men who steered our boat along the main branch of the Mekong is Amerasian. His father was (or is) African American, and his mother is Vietnamese.
Despite the fact that Amerasian children, visible reminders of American aggression, were systematically persecuted, this young man seemed to bear no ill will toward either the Americans or the Vietnamese. In fact, he requested that Elizabeth and I ride in his boat. He said he has no desire to leave Vietnam, even though he could go to live in the U.S. under the joint U.S.-Vietnamese program for Amerasian resettlement. The only American toward whom he feels some resentment is his father; he does not know where his father is, or what he does, or even if he is still alive. His mother later married another Vietnamese, who accepted his Amerasian stepson as if he were his own.
Later, Tan told me that Vietnamese in the north still hate Amerasians. But in the south, where Vietnamese and American cultures intermingled, there is greater acceptance, or at least tolerance.
Vietnam is like a vast and clashing tapestry that has been ripped and torn, partially patched and resewn, then ripped again, and patched again — over and over, for decades, centuries, millenniums. The whole cloth is simultaneously beautiful and hideous, delicate and coarse, tragic and triumphant. Every buried corpse has a litany of accusations and heroics to recount, and all the graves are shallow.
Yet through it all, young men still joke, old women still grin with teeth stained red by betel nut, and small children still play and laugh. When we toured a plant nursery this afternoon, three young children followed closely behind me. Because I am taller than most Asians, I bumped my head on the bamboo pole of an overhead trellis, and the children laughed uproariously. I purposely bumped my head on the next overhead pole and fell backward — and again with the next pole, and the next. Within a few minutes, fifteen children were following me, chattering and shouting and bellowing with laughter. There is no more wonderful sound.
On one of the major branches of the Mekong River, we berthed our long, narrow boats at a small dock and went ashore to visit a village that grew flowers and vegetables. Having no desire to see yet again how a crop was grown, I wandered off by myself.
Following a narrow, muddy path away from the crops, I crossed a bridge covered with a thin layer of grain drying in the sun and walked among the huts of the hamlet. Two children walked ahead of me, as if leading me in a particular direction. I followed them to the porch of one of the huts, where a man in his late forties or early fifties sat in the shade, watching me intently. Gathered around him on the porch were several children (including my two guides), a woman I assumed to be his wife, and a number of neighbors or extended family members.
As I approached, the man asked hesitantly, in almost flawless English, “Are you American?”
“Yes, I’m American.”
He paused, took a deep breath, and whispered, “I haven’t seen an American for twenty years.”
I must have looked startled, because he said, in a reassuring tone, “Sit. Please sit.”
He introduced me to his wife and children, and, as the other adults gazed on (could they understand our English?), he told me his story.
He had been a second lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army until the war ended in 1975. He was then sent to prison — he did not even bother referring to it as a “reeducation camp” — for four years. Meanwhile, the government seized his house and all his possessions; his wife and children, penniless, went to live with relatives.
When he was released, he built a small hut on the Mekong River and began a modest family business handcrafting calendars. But he avoided contact with all foreigners — even Russians, who were stationed throughout Vietnam in the late seventies and early eighties. If he saw someone who was not Vietnamese, he would walk in the other direction. He had good cause to be afraid: anyone seen conversing with a Westerner could expect to be picked up by Vietnam’s internal secret police, questioned, and detained without due process. “Even a few years ago,” he said, “I would have gone to prison for having one U.S. dollar.”
But since Vietnam has opened its doors to the outside world, personal freedoms have expanded. The police now need a search warrant to enter a home, and their presence in hamlets like this one has dramatically tapered off. So the man on the porch was finally free to talk to Americans like me, although in the last few years no foreigners had bothered to stroll off the beaten path to his home.
As we spoke, the conversation and especially the pauses that punctuated it were heavy with emotion. I wanted to stay and talk for hours and learn the whole history of Vietnam through this man’s eyes and the eyes of his wife, children, friends, neighbors. But I knew the tour group would be worried about me if I were absent too long. So I stood up and extended my hand, saying, “I am honored to have met you.”
He took my hand, shook it warmly, and replied, eyes moist, “And I, too.”
They were mad, of course, when I got back to the tour group. They wanted to know where I had been, why I kept wandering off. I sheepishly apologized. That same day we returned to Ho Chi Minh City.
Elizabeth and I were exhausted. Whether it was the heat, the frenetic pace of the tour, or the sense of all the accumulated pain and wonder of Vietnam, I do not know. I was just weary, and felt like crying, but the tears stuck in my throat.
Author’s postscript: My father, Captain Earl A. Pike, USMC, died on August 26, 1995, of emphysema at the age of seventy-three. He was given a full military funeral and buried in a soldiers’ cemetery where identical gravestones, white and clean, stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see.