Remembering Vietnam: Part Two

Thich Quang Duc drove a sky-blue British Austin to his self-immolation. In Hue, I decide to go touch it. My "dragon boat" coasts through an endless rain over the Perfume River. Ignoring the drizzle, women squat precariously in the prows of their sampans, reeling in fishing nets. Several miles up-river from Hue, here in the center of Vietnam, Thien Mu Pagoda juts up through the gray, and we dock. Two minutes later I gaze at the car. On the windshield rests the 1963 photo of Thich Quang Duc in flames. The 66-year-old monk burned himself to death to protest suppression of Buddhism by the South Vietnamese government. A fellow monk poured gasoline on his head. Another set him afire. Someone gave out his biography to the press on the spot. Someone rang up the Associated Press to get them there in time for the burning. And someone drove with him in this Austin from his home here at Thien Mu hundreds of miles to a busy street-corner in Saigon, where he simply stepped out of the car one day in a bright orange robe, sat in prayer, and burned himself to death. When I was In Saigon, I saw the 1963 newsreel of Madame Nhu, the powerful sister-in-law of South Vietnam's President Diem, reacting to the suicide. Speaking English to the camera, she dismissed it as a "barbecue." I reach over and rub the fat hood of the Austin.In the Red River Delta a monk tells me that the repression of activist Buddhist monks continues today under the Communist government -- and asks me not to print his real name for fear of reprisal. So I will call this monk Thich Nguyen Thanh. He stands smoking in the courtyard of his pagoda near Hanoi one sunny day, and invites me inside to sit on his mat and drink tea and talk. His eyes are huge and soft in a face rendered stark by his shaved head. His smile is toothy, glowing, his speech quiet and calm. Now 40, he came to the monastery from his family's home 25 years ago, during the American War. He tells me his day: up at 3:30 for study and meditation, field work to raise food, more meditation and prayer and study, more field work, vegetarian meals with the other monks, then bed. He seems really happy with it, at peace. There are monks, he says, his friends, in prison nearby in Hanoi. Three of them are from Thien Mu pagoda near Hue, where Thich Quang Duc's Austin is enshrined. I ask him why, and he answers: "The government doesn't want Buddhism to be free. They don't support it even though most of the people are Buddhist. These monks spoke out so they put them in prison." His simple testimony shakes me: This man himself lives calmly in danger of imprisonment. "I don't fear it for myself," he says. "To a monk, life is the same everywhere, inside prison or outside. But I worry about the young novices here if I am taken." Economic freedom is growing every day in Vietnam -- from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north. Not so other freedoms. I hear other, quieter tales like Thich Nguyen Thanh's. Not once in its history has Vietnam had a free national election. Open markets aside, it remains a dictatorship. Whenever someone trusts me enough to criticize the government, this line inevitably follows: "Don't tell anyone I said this, or I'll be in trouble." One humid afternoon in Hue I sit with my young, college-educated guide atop the wall of the old Citadel, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. During the Tet offensive of 1968, the Viet Cong captured the Citadel and flew their flag here for nearly a month before South Vietnamese forces and U.S. Marines won the fortress back in house-to-house fighting. Meanwhile American airplanes bombed the Forbidden City inside the great walls to smithereens -- an act comparable to an enemy flattening the Washington Monument. My guide -- I'll call him Triet -- reserves his bitterness for the current government. In 1980, when Triet was a child, his parents bundled him onto a boat in Hue one night. They floated down the Perfume River, hoping to escape to Hong Kong and then America. But before their boat reached the open waters of the South China Sea, police arrested them, confiscated their money, jailed Triet and his mother for one week, threw his father into prison for four months, and fired Triet's mother from her teaching job. Triet also speaks derisively of the government's version of recent national history. "The North killed thousands of people when they captured Hue," he says. "But the government doesn't want to talk about that." As he speaks, though we are alone far above the grassy field that was once the Forbidden City, he lowers his voice and glances behind him to make sure no one overhears. He is scared: "If I am caught saying bad things, I will have to report again and again to the police, and then I will lose my job as a guide." In Saigon I had read in the newspaper that the largest brewery in Vietnam is being fined $1,OOO for making an unauthorized public announcement about its products. Another day I read of the new rules for pre-approval of press conferences and press releases. Bao Ninh, author of The Sorrows of War, the great novel of the conflict, still can't get his next book past the government censors. When I flew from Saigon to Hanoi, I met a 32-year-old computer engineer from Hong Kong whose job is to support his company's computer systems in Vietnam. He laments the country's restrictions: Before he holds a simple seminar on his company's technology in Hanoi, he must get a government permit. He also criticizes Vietnam's Internet rules. The government permits no Internet activity except for e-mail, and even e-mail can only come in a batch once a day. No real-time interactivity. No surfing the web. There is good news: The Hong Kong engineer says restrictions on his activity are loosening every month. Several Vietnamese tell me that free elections will come in five years, that the generation of Communist Party leaders who fought the war are dying off and taking the old ways with them. Even Triet, my bitter young guide in Hue, says there is "radically" more freedom now than three years ago. The government "has to change," he says. "Or they'll end up like the Soviet Union." I see bright billboards in Vietnam's cities with Marx, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh together in profile. The people of Russia may have ripped down the statues of Lenin, but he towers over a broad piazza in the middle of Hanoi.As doi moi opens Vietnam to the outside world, new ideas are pouring in. Most Vietnamese don't ever meet foreign tourists, nor do they need to in order to see a world of possibilities. All they need is a TV set. Satellite television delivers a strange world indeed. I flip on my Saigon hotel TV at midnight and flash through the eight channels. Asian Business News rolls numbers across the screen -- Singapore shipping tonnage, the Dow and the Nikkei -- set to gamelon music. Then come the ads for Dubai vacations -- white beaches, red carpets, gold jewelry, yellow bikinis. The Discovery Channel gives me coyotes sniffing through ice. Larry King glowers out of CNN International. Chinese sub-titles translate the words of young Gregory Peck. Hard Copy brings us Princess Di, "clearly one of the most beautiful women on the face of the earth." Sports? The Dubai Creek Golf Tournament followed by Sri Lankan cricket. Music? Snoopy Dogg Dog raps as topless women dash out of a house -- their breasts fuzzed out by a government censor. What does a young Vietnamese girl think when she views the first television to come to the village where her family has harvested rice for 2,000 years? Now she knows about Michael Bolton and credit card purchases, The Simpsons and Beverly Hills 90210, Colgate Gel and "Timex: The American Name for a Watch." In the waiting lounge at the Danang airport, a television mesmerizes a hundred Vietnamese travelers and me. We're transfixed by the Atlanta Braves, though I'm the only one in the room who has ever played baseball. The Braves are beating Cincinnati in the final game of the National League playoffs, pounding the Reds' pitchers, the joint rockin' as the camera pans the crowd. For half a second the camera latches onto Braves' owner Ted Turner who just sold his own TV empire for a couple billion dollars. Turner stands, clapping, smiling -- and rising at his side to cheer is his wife: Jane Fonda. Hanoi Jane. My eyes dart across the room. There's no shock of recognition anywhere here in Danang -- but I'm reeling. I remember her at Ft. Bragg in 1970, her directness, her celebrity power, her insistent voice through the microphone condemning Nixon's Cambodia invasion. In 1972, she flew into Hanoi itself to denounce Nixon's war in bitter, uncompromising terms. Now I'm here, and she's at the Braves' game. My mind swings, ambivalent, across the globe, across the years. I want to be fair and generous to her. Part of me wishes I had seats as good as hers at the playoffs. I admit that I love this global television, and hasn't her husband done more than anyone else to create it? Sure, he's a cowboy capitalist, but aren't the new capitalist markets lifting Vietnam today? In Fonda's youth -- and mine -- she was the bravest anti-warrior of all. I can still remember her courage as the Ft. Bragg police surrounded her for the arrest. Now her private life seems so important -- and her public life so diminished. In that one television second, I glimpse my American generation in retreat.Ho Chi Minh never turned to the solace of private life. He never married. He fathered no children. In 1911, at the age of 21, he got work as a cook's apprentice on a cargo ship sailing from Vietnam to Europe, leaving his family, his friends, his country behind to agitate for freedom. In more than half a lifetime of wandering from country to country, he adopted at least 50 aliases. He lived in the United States, in England, in France, in Russia, in Thailand, in China. At the age of 29, at the end of World War I, he hung around outside Versailles hoping to get an audience with Woodrow Wilson to plead for American support for a free Indochina. Wilson never saw him. But the French socialists did. I visit three museums that feature the same photograph of a dark, intensely serious young man in a tie looking doe-eyed into the camera as he stands to speak before a group of well-dressed white men, distinguished, much older than him -- the leadership of the French Socialist Party. Soon the Soviets invited him to Moscow to train for revolution with colonial people from all over Asia and Africa. Ho worked as a ship's laborer, a pastry chef, a photographer, a cigarette seller, a teacher, a photo retoucher. He lived in near-poverty -- and all the while he agitated to free Vietnam from the French. He spent time in a British prison in Hong Kong in the 1930s and a Nationalist Chinese prison in the 1940s. He wrote letters and spoke at forums and organized meetings and published newspapers. He did this for 30 years. In that time, he didn't once return to visit his homeland. When he finally returned, at the age of 51, plagued with tuberculosis, he sneaked across the border and holed up in a mountain grotto to rally his allies. That was in 1941. From then until his death in 1969, he fought the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans. Thirty years of exile. Twenty-eight years of war. Ho Chi Minh's portrait is everywhere in Vietnam, and it's easy to understand why. What a long shot this guy was. What a brave, lonely act he committed, setting out for Europe to seek freedom for his people way before the West was ready to consider freedom for the nations of Africa and Asia. Did he know he would end up riding the crest of the 20th Century's great wave of liberation? How could he know, at age 21, a student in Hue? He didn't. He just believed.How many American boys pulling their one-year hitch in Vietnam took comfort in their own belief in the war, in the rightness of their cause? My bus creeps along the steep, narrow roads of the old Demilitarized Zone -- the DMZ -- now and then passing a small mountain village. Finally we arrive at Khe Sanh, the most famous battlefield of the war, and I wonder what an American soldier could believe on a dark night on that faraway slope. Suppose he was drafted out of Raleigh Broughton High in 1968, shipped halfway across the world, then air-dropped into this mountain land where nobody lives, just one horizon over from Laos. And out of Laos some 20 kilometers away, unseen cannons, huge ones, fired at him day and night. Defoliants stripped the land bare. At Khe Sanh, 25,000 North Vietnam soldiers lay siege to 6,000 American soldiers. For two months, the North tried to overrun the base, suffering 10,000 dead. The Americans held on at great cost. Five-hundred soldiers died in the fighting. Soon public attention turned away from Khe Sanh to focus on Hue and Saigon during the Tet Offensive. Quietly, the United States withdrew its troops from Khe Sanh without a fight and bombed the deserted post into oblivion. Three months before, the post was worth defending to the last man. I've made pilgrimages to other great slaughter scenes. I've walked the fields of Waterloo, slept under the stars at Shiloh's Hornet's Nest, followed the bloody path of Pickett's Charge up Gettysburg's Cemetery Ridge, toured the Sinai battlefield at Ismailiya six weeks after the end of the Yom Kippur War. Each of these places share something with Khe Sanh. Each of them is a place of natural beauty, someone's home or someone's grazing field or someone's hunting ground turned by war and chance into a charnel house. The American command chose to put a base on this flat mountain top at Khe Sanh for tactical reasons. But today those reasons seem silly: Did the generals really expect to sling an electric barbed-wire fence across these rugged mountains and through Khe Sanh to Laos? Across an entire country that didn't want it? Khe Sanh lies heavy on the heart of a generation in America and Vietnam. It seems so absurd today, the choice of this remote mountain for fighting and dying and killing. The battlefield at Khe Sanh is deeply pitted. It wasn't the bombs, though, that made these craters. It was bomb-scavengers. After the war, people moved to Khe Sanh to dig up scrap-metal to sell to the Japanese. For the past 20 years, Vietnam has been the world's leading exporter of scrap metal. No wonder: In 1968, American planes dropped 100,000 tons of bombs around Khe Sanh alone.I awake early one morning in the little town of Hoi An and walk down to the Thu Bon River at sunrise. I munch on fried hoanh toanhs and watch red-kerchiefed schoolchildren perform their calisthenics. Across the water I hear music -- dull cymbals and a kind of flute -- from two boats. They dock and begin unloading and a crowd gathers on the waterfront. First come nuns and monks in saffron robes unloading an altar, followed by a large red coffin with money and candles lying on top. Mourners in white robes and head-bands disembark. Attendants guide them into two waiting buses, light joss sticks, unfurl bright flags. A score of funeral workers lift the altar and coffin into a truck. They each wear striped blue athletic pants, a yellow nylon jacket, sandals, and a white hat with a red cross and a Nike logo. Running the show is the funeral director -- a shriner on steroids. He bellows instructions, all the while beating two red percussion sticks together to keep his staff moving in rhythm. He wears the bright pantaloons of a court jester, a red-and-yellow striped shirt with billowing sleeves, a high hat with a red pompon and a pink sash down his back. His clothes are covered in shiny buttons and little mirrors. And he wears the coolest aviator shades in the world. Bury me this way. It's the right morning to begin thinking about death. I walk to a flower stall in the market nearby and buy a glorious bunch of gladiolas. I'm going to need them today to lay on the graves at My Lai.To get to My Lai, I hire a car and driver and we set out down Highway 1, the main national road, for the most harrowing travel I've ever experienced. National Highway 1 is narrow, shoulderless, deeply pot-holed in places, full of uniformed schoolkids on bicycles or walking hand-in-hand, water buffaloes, big trucks, speeding motorbikes, buses crammed with people and loaded on top with bags of rice or bicycles, men standing in the middle of the road to beckon traffic into their pho shops as we speed through the villages. But on this major highway, we encounter only two other cars in six hours of driving. Few people in Vietnam can afford one. At Quang Ngai we turn off toward Son My, the village that includes the hamlet of My Lai, and suddenly the road disappears into deep mud ruts and rocks. My car can go no further, but my driver recruits a man on a motorbike to take me the last 10 kilometers to My Lai. I clutch my gladiolas with one hand and my seat-strap with the other as we glide through paddies and villages, white cranes wobbling through the distant rice fields, kids yelling "Hello!" as they catch sight of me, passing one motorbike carrying a big live pig in a basket, another lugging three dogs in a cage -- perhaps headed for the food market? Our motorbike swings left into a little green park. Straight ahead looms a white statue in the muscular style of socialist realism, a tableau. One man lies dead, another dying, cradled in a woman's arms. Above them a mother stands tall, her dead child slung on one arm at her hip, her other arm raised high in a powerful fist, her rock face etched with monumental grief and defiance. Very few tourists come to My Lai, and I am nearly alone as I walk the grounds. A young guide approaches to tell me she "appreciates my emotion" in bringing the flowers, inviting me to lay them at the foot of the memorial. "Spend some time alone," she says. "Then come inside and we can talk." On March 16, 1968, U.S. troops came to the hamlets they called My Lai and massacred 504 people -- mostly old men, women and children. They dropped grenades into houses and bomb shelters, lined people up and shot them in bunches with automatic rifle bursts. The memorial I'm visiting is at the site of the greatest carnage of all. I'm anxious as I walk the grounds, imagining that bloody morning, one of the deepest ethical scars ever cut into the history of my own country. Everywhere plaques in Vietnamese and English speak to me from the earth. "Foundation of Mr. Le Ly's House Burnt By U.S. Soldiers," reads one. "7 of his family members were murdered." Then the names of the seven and their ages: 70, 65, 42, 34, 13, 9 and 1. Bullet holes riddle the palm trees. I peer into the drainage ditch where Lt. William Calley and his men murdered scores of people. Beyond the ditch, rice paddies stretch out toward a gorgeous row of palms. My Lai today seems the most peaceful place on earth: The wind blows steadily through the palms and pine trees. Birds call. Orange cosmos sprout brightly from the foundation of "Mr. Do Phi's House Burnt By U.S. Soldiers -- 5 of his family members were murdered." When I return to the statue, the young guide has arranged my flowers in a beautiful vase and lit joss sticks nearby. Out of the destroyed bomb shelter of Mr. Do Phi's house grows a bo-de tree. I sit on a bench beneath it, thinking of the Buddha's enlightenment under such a tree -- but no enlightenment comes to me. A plaque at the entrance of the small museum lists the dead. Some photographs show the last moments of people's lives, huddling together in shock and fear and sometimes defiance. Other photos show the rows of dead bodies. In one picture, two boys lie in the dirt. The older boy lying on top looks up into the camera as he covers the body of his wounded brother to protect him. An instant later an American soldier gunned down both children. I think of my two boys, about this age, and I weep. Finally there is the photo of Lt. Calley peering out of a chopper, flashing the peace sign. The guide, Truong Thien Huong, 26, invites me to sit down. She serves me green tea in a tiny cup and asks me, "How do you feel?" I tell her of my grief, and she wonders with me how this could have happened. "No one understands why they did it," she says. "The people of this village liked the Americans. They had come before and brought food or something for the children. But this morning was different. They got in and got out in a few hours." What does she feel when an American visits? "We are glad. We want more people to come. We don't blame all Americans. We know just one group of men lost their humanity that morning." I ask her why the Vietnamese people are so good to me, so friendly, so forgiving. She answers, "Because we have suffered so much for so long. We must forgive, or how would we live in the world?" When I mention with derision Robert McNamara's recent book, his admission that the war was wrong, she mildly reproves me. She has forgiven McNamara too, and she's glad he wrote his book: "It's good. It's never too late for someone to speak out." As I leave, I take in the peaceful green land once more, imagining children racing helter-skelter around the village, herding ducks with long bamboo poles, riding the water buffaloes through the rice fields, laughing. A few years after the massacre at My Lai, "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley" sold more than a million copies back home in America.


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