Remembering Vietnam

Twenty years after the end of the war, Cu Chi is still pockmarked. Carpet-bombing B-52s dug the craters, and saplings now grow where lofty forests of rubber trees stood before napalm and Agent Orange wiped the land clean. Mr. Ho, my driver, takes me out to Cu Chi on this sweltering day, and I descend into the tunnels. During the war the villagers dug 200 kilometers of underground passageways right to the outskirts of Saigon itself. Thousands of them lived there for years to avoid the American bombs, and now I duck through the tunnel entrance, squat-walk through the 3-foot-high passages opening into dining rooms and command centers and tiny family living quarters. Slipping around traps of sharpened bamboo spikes set for invaders, I pass an underground hospital where 17 babies were born. Cu Chi's version of our own Vietnam memorial, a scarlet-roofed pagoda adorned with dragons, sits atop a hill. Inside stand heavy stone tablets, each one gilt-engraved with the names of Cu Chi's dead from the "French" and "American" wars: 50,000 dead from this one region alone. As Mr. Ho drives me back to Saigon, I'm bursting with questions about the war. So I ask him: Where did he fight? What did it feel like to be in battle? Was he afraid? He answers patiently as we pass the water-buffalo mud-wallow, telling me about his two years fighting in the South Vietnamese army. Then he crosses his arms to demonstrate the pain of the Viet Cong handcuffs and tells me of his two years in a prisoner-of-war camp in the North. As we split the rice paddies and dikes, banana trees' giant leaves languishing in the tropical heat, black-clad women in conical hats squatting in the flood planting rice, burial shrines rising from the distant fields, Mr. Ho labors for the right English words to ask me his question. It seems to be burning in his mind. I am an American in Vietnam. I brace myself as he speaks: "What do you think," he asks, "of Windows 95?" Welcome to Vietnam.During my three weeks in Vietnam this fall, I found the war everywhere -- in the tunnels at Cu Chi and Vinh Moc, on the heights of Khe Sanh, on the hot, wet sidewalks of Saigon and Hanoi, in the rebel Buddhist monasteries of Hue, on the vast, brown waters of the Mekong, and deep inside myself. I'm not a veteran. I'm not sure I had the courage, and I know I didn't have the conviction. Back in 1967, during my high school civics class arguments, I knew the war was wrong. And I knew it when I came into journalism class one day and everyone sat in wide-eyed silence except for my friend Helen, her head buried in her arms, tears pouring down her face. She'd heard yesterday: Her boyfriend, Dickie C., was dead in Vietnam. By the time I left Lynchburg for Duke in 1969, I was an ardent opponent of the war, and I spent the next six years in the anti-war movement. I was a good student -- conscientious, fascinated with American lit. But it was politics that conferred meaning on my life -- the personal shock of the women's movement, the relentless progress of the civil rights movement. And the war. My work against the Vietnam War gave my life moral coherence for years, a coherence that isn't easy to come by anymore. I'm 44 now, and I think back with nostalgia. Certainly I don't yearn for war, but I yearn for the energy and openness of youth -- and especially for the great moral power of the times. Last spring marked 20 years since the helicopter flew the last Americans off the roof of the embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese army burst into the city. Relations between the United States and Vietnam are finally being "normalized," and American travelers are trickling into the country we fought or shunned for so many years. My generation will always struggle with the terrible meaning of the war. For me, it was time to go and deal with my own unfinished business. I went seeking some new truth about the war, about what it meant for Vietnam and for America and for me.I walk out of my hotel into the whirring center of the place officially known as Ho Chi Minh City -- but all the locals still call it Saigon. Across the river a row of giant billboards screams Heineken, Philips, Hitachi, Sony. I stand on the sidewalk in the din and stench of thousands of motorcycles roaring past bicycles, trucks, buses and people walking along balancing goods on shoulder-poles or pulling wooden carts by hand. Coca Cola rules in Vietnam, as it does everywhere, and Marlboro is a close second. Coke provides every little pho (soup) shop a big sign with the name of the restaurant in block letters and the Coke logo gleaming. Every sidewalk cigarette-seller sports a half-dozen brands, all arranged in a display box provided by Philip Morris with the Marlboro Man, cowboy hat and all, delivering his hard-eyed gaze. It's apparent that Americans have left their mark on another industry in Vietnam as well: sex. When the U.S. armed forces departed Saigon, writer Susan Brownmiller reports, they left 200,000 unemployed prostitutes behind. The tourist center, and hence the center of the sex industry, is Dong Khoi, the most famous street in Saigon. The French named it Rue Catinat, and it was here that "The Quiet American" stole the love of a prostitute in Graham Green's 1955 novel. The South Vietnamese regime renamed the street Tu Do, or "Freedom Street." And when the North won the war the government gave it one of those revolution-speak names you figure must be satire, but isn't. Dong Khoi means "Simultaneous Uprising Street." I walk down Dong Khoi one night. A woman on a motorbike dressed in a brilliant silk dress and red lipstick accosts me, offering a ride and herself. Another grabs my arm, "You Number 1." And a giggling young woman stands in front of me and asks, "You want boom-boom one time?" It is men, though, who run the sex business. The pimps follow me relentlessly, wheedling, "You like ladies?" and inevitably, "Very young, very fresh, very clean." I keep thinking they must be pimping for their little sisters. I keep thinking of the teenage girls, jobless, in from the paddies, vulnerable, but soon too old to be pimped out as "young and fresh and clean," left to offer themselves in red satin dresses on motorbikes along Dong Khoi. More is offered than sex along Dong Khoi Street. There are the children, grabbing my hands, grazing my wallet-pocket with their arms and shoulders, reaching to sell me a shoe-shine or a pack of gum or cigarettes or a coconut to hack open for the milk, carried over their shoulders on long poles. Some beg with their eyes. And twice women with babies -- I can't look closely -- hold the baby up, pleading. Men offer young girls and marijuana -- "everything you like." After a day of walking the streets, I return to my hotel and another scene of the new Saigon, a karaoke bar. Karaoke has taken Asia by storm, and even in roadside villages, houses with signs outside advertise karaoke each evening for a small fee. But tonight the karaoke machine is off. The bar is darkened, and inside teenaged Vietnamese kids and college students sit around, people of some means who can afford the mixed drinks, all smartly dressed, all watching an out-of-sync Elton John video. Elton plunks away at the piano, lips moving one second behind the sound interspersed with footage of "The Lion King" as the singer belts out "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" and the Vietnamese audience sits rapt. I go to my room and fall asleep. The monsoon rains beat down, and the next morning before the urban riot begins, I am awakened by a rooster crowing.November 15, 1969: Midnight cold. Two months into college, I milled on the quad with 800 other students, Duke Chapel rising above us like God was on our side as we boarded the chartered buses to take us to Washington, D.C. I was happy. I was 18 and on my way to the biggest, friendliest march ever to hit Washington. When we arrived we gathered around the Washington Monument in frigid weather. My heart was warm and my hopes high. Hadn't the Movement already brought down Lyndon Johnson? Weren't Americans tired of our boys dying half a world away for a cause they only dimly understood? Hadn't the Tet Offensive shown that hopes for a U.S. "victory" were futile? By the time we'd marched up and down the Mall with a half-million other anti-warriors, I was sure we'd brought an end to the war that day. As the demonstration's grand finale, the cast of Hair, down from New York, led us in a sprawling, hundred-thousand-voice rendition of "Let the Sun Shine". How could even Richard Nixon resist us? Back then I knew a lot about ideals, about draft boards and tear gas and protest. But I knew little about bloody, violent death, about guns and tanks, shackles, the realities of war. Twenty years later, Saigon's War Remnants Museum -- until recently called the American War Crimes Museum -- attempts to bring me up to speed. Outside the museum, the "sculpture garden" boasts a collection of mostly American planes, tanks, howitzers, armored cars, and flamethrowers. A French guillotine, diagonal blade upraised, lifts high above a bucket set to catch the falling head. The Vietnamese call these weapons remnants of the "American War," and my mind reels at that phrase. For 20 years I've spoken about the "fall" of Saigon -- but the Vietnamese all talk about the city's "liberation." Later at the Cu Chi tunnels, I watch a documentary deriding Americans as savage killers. The film's hero is the "gentle little girl of the fields" who gets the medal for being the best "American-killer." But it is here at the War Remnants Museum that I first come upon the Vietnamese history of the war. The museum dedicates one room to U.S. atrocities, showing blow-ups of the famous Life magazine photos of the massacre at My Lai. Nixon and MacNamara stare from the walls, and LBJ quotations stand in irony next to stirring words from our Declaration of Independence. Another room features South Vietnamese and American war prisons, detention camps and torture chambers. Grainy photos depict a man allegedly being pushed from a U.S. warplane, men dragged behind a tank, women packed tight into narrow, baking prison cells. Large paintings on the wall portray U.S. soldiers participating in torture too horrible to be real: dropping snakes down a woman prisoner's pants, pushing needles into finger tips. More photos show torture I know to be true: the American-made "tiger cages" on the prison island of Con Son where the government has recovered the remains of 1,000 dead. Photographs of victims haunt me -- phosphorous and napalm chewed off faces, fragment bombs laced a body. Weapons -- M16s, bazookas, grenade launchers, mortars, old Stens and Remingtons and Thompsons -- fill one room. A display of chemical destruction fills another: "before and after" shots of defoliated forests, chemical grenades, terrifying photos of children with birth defects attributed to Agent Orange. Finally, a deformed fetus floats in a bottle of formaldehyde. I glance at it quickly, then turn my head away. It's a relief to get the hell out of there. Suppose half of this museum is filled with lies. Suppose only half of the things this museum says about my country are true. The absurdity of the war rushes upon me, the same feeling I had so many times while the war raged. Why did we fight this war? And what did it do to our people? I can't help but be ashamed of my country as I leave the museum, walking out past the mammoth color photo of the drainage ditch at My Lai filled with the dead bodies of women and naked babies lying side by side. This is my first encounter with American history written by foreigners who fought us and won, who got to write the story their way: America is the barbaric enemy, an evil force defeated. But if I feet shame, the Vietnamese want no part of it. They love me. They want to talk to me. They befriend me and invite me into their homes to meet their families. I don't feel scared, unwanted or disliked. In my many conversations about the war, I never hear a harsh word. Still, though, I am perplexed by the kindness. Didn't our country bomb and burn theirs? Didn't we kill two million of their people in an unjust war? Didn't we perpetuate their suffering by promulgating a 20-year trade embargo after the end of the war? How can it be that even the former North Vietnamese soldiers I meet are forgiving, kind, welcoming?One overheated afternoon Tran Manh Tien, my cyclo driver, pedals me across a bridge over the Ben Nghe Channel. He sits behind me on his three-wheeler bicycle, working hard, sweating, and I sit up front in the broad passenger seat. We roll down busy streets, past open-air shops and roadside kettles of frying spring rolls, then down a long, narrow cement alley -- very clean, very wet from the midday monsoon -- stopping outside one of the tiny stalls before a light blue gate. When Tien told me about his home, I didn't believe it. But now I stand inside the immaculate dwelling -- 20 feet long and less than one yard wide -- where he lives with his wife, Linh, and his 5-year old son, Tri, the biggest 5-year-old I've ever seen. When we enter, Linh and Tri lie fanning themselves on a straw mat, trying to keep cool in the liquid heat. They fan me furiously, apologizing for the weather and for the electricity being off. I explain that I'm from Durham North Carolina: I know all about mugginess. Tien, 30, rents this house for $30 per month from his retired father who lives next door. Linh is a year older than him, and Tien identifies her as Chinese even though her family has lived in Vietnam for generations. As we talk, Linh proudly pulls Tri's composition books out of plastic bags hanging from a hook on the wall, one for copying Vietnamese words, the other for copying Chinese characters. Linh stays home all day, taking care of Tri and teaching him. The house contains one low plastic stool they insist I take, a small dresser, a straw mat where they sleep all together, storage boxes tied high to the walls. A Vietnamese bathing beauty smiles at us from a wall-calendar, and a plastic toy rifle for Tri dangles nearby. At the door stands the fragile, ubiquitous shrine to the Buddha. "My wife," says Tien when I mention it. "My parents were Catholic." Linh gets us cold Cokes from a nearby stall, and Tri goes behind a curtain at the back of the house to take a loud pee into a container. What happens to the waste? Does the night-soil collector come by? I'm too embarrassed to ask. Finally the electricity comes on and the fan mercifully kicks in. The family shows me their cassette player and black-and-white TV tuned to a Hong Kong sit com. And then, in this house no wider than a single bed, Tri sits down to play a knock-off version of Nintendo, the same kind of shoot-'em-up video game my own children crave. Tien can't afford a used motorbike, the symbol of the middle class, which would cost at least $700. He can't even afford his own cyclo (at a cost of $250) and has to rent one. But he can afford consumer electronics -- the Nintendo cost him $30 -- and his family revels in it. Before I go, Tien combs his hair; Linh and Tri change into their good clothes, and we all go out into the alley so I can take some pictures to send back to them. "Friendship," says Tien, as I put my arm across his small shoulders.Money, surely, plays a role in that friendship. Tien and I do form a bond in our few days together. We share good conversation and great adventures, and when I pay him $10 per day to pedal me around town, he's making a lot of money. To Tien and to the hotels and guides catering to tourists, I'm incredibly wealthy. Also, most of the Vietnamese I meet aren't the same ones who witnessed the death and destruction inflicted by my country. More than half of the population has been born since the end of the war. These young people don't have bitter war memories. Theirs are new concerns: To them I represent an opportunity to practice English, the language of international commerce. Many of them have relatives in the United States, and they are fascinated by the stories of leisure and wealth. I am their rare window into American culture, so they seek me out and quickly befriend me. But it is poverty, not friendship, that occupies my thoughts as Tien pedals me back to my hotel. In Vietnam's cities I see plenty of beggars, and I see a few old men and women sleeping on the unkind sidewalks of Dong Khoi Street. I see rough rural life, and I read various reports that over one-third of Vietnamese are undernourished. But I don't see the ubiquitous grinding urban poverty I've seen in Delhi or Mexico City. And I admit that in Vietnam I feel my first unbridled admiration of capitalism at work. The Vietnamese call their new capitalism doi moi, or "renovation," the communist government's policy of open markets. Doi moi means that farmers can own their own land, that people can run their own small businesses unmolested, that international capital is now welcome to participate in joint ventures with the Vietnamese government or companies. Most Vietnamese are rice farmers, and for them doi moi means badly needed cash: The average per capital income is less than $250 annually -- but increasing. At its current rate of growth, the economy will double in less than a decade, and Vietnam is now the second largest rice exporter in the world. For Tien and others, doi moi is heaven-sent. They know that capitalism means that a relatively few Vietnamese will become enormously wealthy, that inequality will abound. But like everyone I speak to, Tien says the new open markets have already improved his life, raised his income. God knows, Tien and Linh are poor: They live in a house the size of my bedroom. But they have plenty of food and a good roof over their heads and electricity and a school for Tri and even Nintendo. The government guarantees them health care. They have education. And they have hope. There is a sense, everywhere in Vietnam, of a people rising.May 4, 1970: Nixon has invaded Cambodia. Four students lie dead at Kent State. Two more are to die at Jackson State. The liberal hopes for an early end to the war exploded in the skies over Cambodia. I was still optimistic, but just six months after the November March on Washington, I now possessed the messianic optimism of a radical. Joining a small group of all-night leafletters, I plastered the Duke campus with fliers about the coming protests. Hundreds of us gathered outside the Chapel, then paraded to the traffic circle. Marching near the front of the line behind Hutch Traver, several of us walked up to a car turning into the circle and held up our hands. The car stopped. We hauled wood out of the forest to barricade Duke University Road. I was sure the Revolution had come. The war was mad, but the demonstrations were bliss. Duke's new president, Terry Sanford, held off the Durham cops and talked us out of the traffic circle. He convinced the faculty to pass a resolution allowing students who wanted to spend their time protesting the war to skip exams and take a "pass" in their courses. School was out. Protest was in. My friends and I joined a bedraggled crowd of demonstrators at Fort Bragg. Tony Baker and Dave Leech and I joined a march from the N.C. State Brickyard to the state capitol. I cut my hair, the ultimate sacrifice, to canvass door-to-door in Durham for the congressional amendments that would force U.S. troops out of Cambodia. Thousands of us spent a day lobbying in Washington. And I got on with the re-election campaign of an early opponent of the war, Sen. Joe Tydings of Maryland. The good news that summer was my draft number: 317. The bad news came in November: Tydings lost and the war was still on. When I got back to school, I stood on the porch of my friend John's house on Watts Street and watched him leap to the ground over and over again, landing on his gimpy knee to get it good and swollen for the next day's draft physical. Our favorite joke was the one about the guy who cut off his thumbs to avoid the draft and then got out for flat feet. One, two, three, what are we fightin' for? I was naive, it's true, to think the peaceful uprising of America's students was a revolution. But I wasn't naive about the meaning of the Vietnam War. It was futile, immoral, insane.Take one look around the Reunification Palace in Saigon, and you'll understand why the South lost. The insanity and futility of the war are nowhere more apparent than inside this strange, enormous glass-and-concrete box. South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem started construction in the early 1960s. His successor, President Nguyen Van Thieu, lived in it as his presidential palace through April 1975. In a city where millions of people suffered in one-room quarters, Thieu lived in regal public splendor. Gargantuan, formal rooms decked out with gilded furniture fill the top three floors of the palace. This gaudy display still stuns, but there is a seediness about it, too, like an over-sized, run-down Holiday Inn. Today the government uses the palace for official gatherings and receptions. Underneath the palace slithers an extravagant system of tunnels and sub-basements, where Thieu's wife and children fled in times of danger and where the generals hunkered down to deploy their troops. Thieu himself took emergency refuge in a low bed in a small basement room, equipped with a short-wave radio on his nightstand. I realize this wasn't a palace, after all. It was a bunker. When the tanks of North Vietnam crashed through the gates to this grand building, the war was over. Thieu and his officers fled, many lifted out of the palace grounds on last-minute helicopter rides to safety aboard American warships. Some got out with their families. Some didn't. This story -- of flight, of exile, of families riven -- is the war story I hear more than any other. I spend one day on the Mekong River, and it is filled with such tales. I set out with Tien and a 23-year-old guide named Nguyen Hoang Thanh Thao ("Miss Thao"), and we boat across the slow, broad Mekong to the Island of the Coconut Monk. There we meet the local guide, 69-year-old Dang Van To, who speaks good French and reasonable English learned from childhood. One lonely tooth floats in the middle of his lower jaw and his smile displays it proudly. The Coconut Monk once ate only coconuts for three year. He had a following of about 2,000 people who built a bizarre, fabulous world on the island. The eye-catcher is a series of nine dragons twisting skyward in a kind of plaza just above the cool grotto where the monk sat in the lotus position and meditated all day. And each evening after America's 1969 moonshot, encased in a metal "spaceship," he hauled himself up into a metal "moon" where he spent the night. The South Vietnamese government imprisoned the monk five times for failing to support the war effort. Then, when the North took over, the new regime shut down his island haven and booted him and his followers out. He died in 1990, and now the government has re-opened the island as a tourist attraction in the spirit of doi moi. I sit with Tien and Miss Thao and Mr. Dang under a small canopy in the middle of a lotus pool on the Island of the Coconut Monk. We talk surrounded by plants -- deep purple eglantine, bunches of pink bougainvillea, enormous pink lotus blossoms atop dark green stalks, venkas, tiny purple lion mouth, the orange ball of the pomegranate flower, frangipani and mango trees and great-rooted banyans and orchids and the huge, hanging green pods of the jackfruit. Soon the talk turns to the war. Mr. Dang grew up near the island and lived in the Mekong delta and farmed rice. During the war, he left his family, fleeing the dangers in the countryside for the relative safety of Saigon, where he worked for years in the railroad yards. Now he's back on the river, happy. Then Miss Thao tells her family's story. Her mother worked as a clerk for the Americans during the war, and in 1990, Miss Thao's mother and her older sister were finally able to join a relative in the States under the government's Orderly Departure Program, instituted to halt the flood of boat people. They live in Bridgeport, Conn. now, sending money to Miss Thao every couple months. Her relatives like America, but Miss Thao doesn't want to join them. "I hear there isn't as much feeling in America, as much love," she says. "People work all the time. Is this true?" I assure her that it isn't, that I've seen as much hard work in Vietnam as I ever see in America, that we feel and love in America, too. It's clear as we talk that Tien and Miss Thao, the two comparative youngsters, are baffled about why another country would ever want to attack theirs. Me too, I explain, and I talk sheepishly about how I and many others demonstrated against the war. They know about this already, and they understand. I am embarrassed. There is silence. Then our old guide slices open a purple dragon-fruit, offers the firm white pulp all around, and enthusiastically proclaims how good it is that we are together now. We all heartily agree.Leaving the Mekong River, we head down a bumpy country road towards a farm raising cobras and other poisonous snakes to sell as a delicacy in the food markets of the delta. We drive on a wide levy through flooded rice fields, some new and green, some yellow and ready for harvest, with rows of men and women in black or colored garb and conical hats stooping to plant seedlings. It is still the rainy season -- October -- in the delta, boiling hot. Vietnam's countryside is one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world. This road and a hundred others like it are literally populated almost every inch of the way. Houses run in a kind of miles-long village next to the road. Adults and children squat in the open courtyards in front of the palm-thatched houses, the pho shops, the Honda repair shops. Rice cakes lie drying on long straw mats propped to face the sun. Great stands of bamboo and sugar cane shadow the roadside. Villagers hull rice in every square inch of front yard. The road itself is swamped with bicycles and motorbikes and children guiding slow-laboring water buffalo home from the fields. I try to picture an American soldier driving this road in a Jeep in 1968. What must it have been like? There weren't many motorcycles then, and no roadside karaoke stalls. But there were the brown bodies and glorious smiles of the children packing the roadside. There were the grown-ups working the fields, talking in the yards. There was the jungle, the thick roadside growth in vast stretches between paddies. Strange, brilliant jungle flowers, jungle density, jungle sounds, jungle fears. An unknown language. This delta province was a VC stronghold during the war. I try to take on the mindset of a soldier. Who is the enemy? Who is waiting to ambush me? Where will the gunshots come from? This patch of jungle or that paddy? And if I fire back, will I miss the children? Will the near-children carrying guns shoot at me? Then in a flash I'm back at home, thinking about the exact moment I first saw Wayne C. home from Vietnam in his wheelchair.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}